In today’s world, it’s necessary to consider the impact of unmanaged social-media use on our children’s developing minds and personalities. It is also important to look more closely at the impact of the messages they are receiving through these channels.
Social media is just one of the ways that popular culture communicates messages to the young and impressionable minds of our children. These messages promote perfection, consumerism, and the importance of image. And whether we like it or not, our children are being parented and raised with social media. For example, YouTube sensation Logan Paul recently uploaded a controversial and callous video of a man who had committed suicide in a Japanese forest. This vlog reportedly got 600k likes before it was taken down by YouTube. It is troubling to think that children and adolescents have become so desensitized to images of violence that they would not be shocked or alarmed by the recording of a real man, taking his life, being shared and sensationalized all over the internet.
Here are five facts to consider before allowing children and adolescents free reign on their smartphones.
Excessive social-media use is damaging for children and adolescents.
It should come as no surprise that, with a lack of self-awareness, fragile self-identity, high levels of impressionability and vulnerability, children and adolescents are struggling socially, mentally, physically, and emotionally in today’s world. A whole generation’s identity, values, and wellbeing are in the hands of the social-media stars. This is showing up in their mental health more than anything. Today, greater numbers of children and adolescents are reporting more mental health problems than at any other time in history. Rates of suicide and depression in teens have skyrocketed since 2011, with one in eight struggling with a mental-health problem at some point.
Social media is ubiquitous.
According to a 2016 Pew study, 94 percent of teens access the internet using their phone daily and 71 percent use more than one social-media platform. With a billion videos watched each day, YouTube’s viewing figures will soon surpass television for the first time in history. According to another 2014 survey done by Variety, YouTube stars are more popular and influential than mainstream celebrities amongst US teenagers. Parents who believe that their children are not affected or will not be affected by social media are ill-prepared for the potential dangers that come along with social-media use.
Social media affects identity formation.
One of the main tasks of adolescents is to explore their identity and develop a sense of self. Self-identity gives children a sense of consistency and stability over time. Where, in previous generations, adolescents would go out, date, make mistakes, and explore their identities, now adolescents are less likely to do any of the aforementioned. They sit in their rooms and their identities are being projected onto them via social media. Who you are, what you should wear, what you should buy, and who you should emulate is all linked to how many likes they get. This is a generation far more invested in showing themselves than knowing themselves.
Social media affects sleep.
Matt Walker, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory, said, “Sleep is the single most effective thing you can do to reset your brain and body for health.” Because of the blue screens on most electronics that we are exposed to, the melatonin release that naturally occurs in our body at night is not taking place. Lower or delay melatonin release and you will disrupt your sleep pattern, which results in a slew of issues such as memory, retention, and attention problems, emotional regulation difficulties, and frustration tolerance difficulties to name a few. If children are looking at screens for over seven and a half hours a day for non-academic uses (Kaiser study, 2015), then the quality of their sleep is definitely going to be affected.
Social media is affecting relationships.
Children who are growing up in the age of the internet and social media have a very superficial understanding of relationships. They don’t understand the effort it takes to make and maintain real relationships. This is because much of what we know about relationships, how they are formed, how they are invested in, and how they are maintained is learned through engaging socially with peers during childhood and adolescence. It happens in classrooms, on playgrounds, on sports teams, and during casual outings to the mall on the weekends. All social interactions are now limited or, worse, disrupted due to technology.
They also lack the social skills or etiquette to engage in real relationships. With a click of a button, they make a friend and delete them just as easily. They have a hard time reading social cues or managing their anxiety when they are in difficult social encounters. They prefer to play online, and they date (and subsequently break up) using social media. They don’t understand the meaning of true relationships, where connection and intimacy bind people together. They believe that being virtually connected to hundreds of people is the same as being really, physically connected to them. They are growing up self-absorbed, spending most of their days (over seven hours) showing what they have, what they ate, and where they traveled on the different social-media channels and actually believe that it is the most important thing they will do that day. Because of these reasons, researchers are finding that narcissist traits are on the rise while empathy, a critical ingredient for emotional intelligence and having good relationships, is on the decline.
Most social-media developers recommend that children be over 13 in age before they engage in social-media activities. I do not believe this is right or true. That age is when their lives are most tumultuous, where their inner worlds and their bodies are in flux and so are their outer worlds and their relationships. It is not a time when they should be starting to enter the virtual world. This is when they are most vulnerable and most susceptible to pressures and influences due to their high need to belong.
As they enter adolescence, they should be encouraged to go out, learn about who they are, make mistakes, get their hearts broken, and know the joys of true friendships – not spend hours wondering what picture to post and then spend the following hours looking at how many likes it got. It is worrying to think that most parents do not consider these factors when they hand their children a phone and allow their decisions to be influenced by comments like, “Everyone in my class has one.” As parents, we have a lot to consider before we hand our children a smartphone and give them free reign in the virtual world of social media.
Dr. Saliha Afridi is a Clinical Psychologist and the Managing Director of The Lighthouse.