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Digital childhood: kids and social media

Recently Apple’s CEO Tim Cook said that he wouldn’t want his children to use social media, joining with this statement a growing group of digitally disillusioned tech executives. Meanwhile, social network giants like Facebook seem to make every effort to keep kids firmly glued to screens: the new app Messenger for kids is designed to help children as young as six to “communicate” without signing up for the platform. Parents and child development experts expectedly raise voices of concern: just yesterday health advocacy organizations sent an open letter to Facebook to stop the app, referring to a number of studies that show the negative effects social media has on children.

Most children would disagree with Mr. Cook or the health advocacy groups, though. 71% of teens in the US have at least one social media profile, and spend around 3 hours on social networking sites daily. 34% report they are online “almost constantly” (Pew Research). What’s more, increasingly younger and younger demographics are signing up, despite the age restrictions that most platforms impose. According to a 2017 report by Ofcom, nearly half of all 11 and 12 year-olds, and 28% of all 10-year-olds in the UK have social media profiles. The overall screen time is also on the rise: half of 3-4-year-olds, 79% of 5-7-year-olds and 94% of 8-11-year-olds use the Internet in 2017, with increases of more than 10 percentage points for the youngest two age groups compared to 2016. More and more children also use their own devices when online: 3-11-year-olds are more likely to own tablets in 2017 than in the previous year. Recent data from a Facebook poll show that parents are well aware of these facts: 81% of the surveyed parents reported that their kids have started using social media between the ages 8 and 13.

Having all this in mind, small wonder psychologists are so interested in how new technology in general and social media in particular affect children’s mental health and brain development.

Emotions and social intelligence

Let’s look at communication first. An interesting study showed that increased screen time worsens children’s ability to read human emotions in face-to-face interactions. However, that can be reverted if they stop using their devices. After analyzing the social skills of 51 preteens, the researchers sent them to a nature camp with no access to TV, computers and mobile phones, and a week later measured their results against a control group. Spending a couple of days away from any devices correlated with the preteen’s improved ability to pick up nonverbal cues and interact with their peers. In brief, social intelligence involves skills that children cannot build online: verbal and listening skills, understanding of roles and reading non-verbal signals.

In her book The Big Disconnect psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair talks about problems social media use poses to children: first, the online environment is “safer” than making real friendships, so kids are less inclined to venture out of their comfort zone and communicate, which continually isolates them. Social media also gives them a sense of control over their interactions: online they can choose when and with whom to communicate, and can avoid unpleasant conversations, or answer with a delay. This makes them unprepared for real-life situations of direct conflict with others. Also, negative emotions like anger are faster to spread via social media because of the missing non-verbal information.

Attention, addiction and brain chemistry

Substantial research is dedicated to how media affects children’s ability to concentrate. This meta-analysis of 50 studies with results from over 155 000 children shows significant correlation between media use and measures of ADHD in people younger than 18 years, including attention problems, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. An interesting fact is that the growing rates of ADHD coincide with the advent of social networks: from 2003 to 2011, the percentage of children with ADHD in the US rose from 7.8% to 11%. Are Facebook and the likes to blame for these worrying figures?

Probably: when we come to think that even undiagnosed with ADHD children report that they experience difficulty in regulating their time spent on social media. According to some figures, 78% of adolescents check their phones at least hourly, and 50% say they are addicted to their phones. Is self-control so hard? There is a neurological explanation for that – children and adolescents’ frontal lobes, the area in the brain associated with critical thinking and decision making, are still developing. When we add the hormonal whirlpool caused by likes-induced dopamine, things quickly escalate to social media addiction. According to a recent study, simply viewing likes on social media is as pleasant as eating chocolate or winning money for teenagers’ brains. Indeed, social media can easily activate the reward system of the brain, offering clicks and likes as currency.  Instant gratification – the possibility to receive attention immediately – creates cravings similar to those of drug addicts. To top it, sleep deprivation doesn’t help the evolving brain either – studies have found that excessive social media use meddles with sleep patterns.

Texting and multitasking  

Even if we put the more serious problems out of focus in this article – cyberbullying, social media depression or low self-esteem – this always-on mentality has serious enough repercussions. This is best illustrated with texting, a favorite activity among younger users. Compulsive texting is shown to correlate with lower academic grades among adolescents and especially among girls (who text more often to maintain relationships rather than to convey information). However, texting itself does not make children forget their grammar – on the contrary, several studies challenge this belief saying that it nurtures different linguistic skills such as fast reading and creative writing. What it does is establish multitasking as acceptable and even desirable, making it harder for children to concentrate, think and learn to communicate on a deeper level.

Sharenting is part of the problem  

Parents are often confronted with their children’s unhealthy Internet habits. But are they not part of the problem? 92% of children in the US have a digital presence before their second birthday – even in today’s fast-paced society, it is unlikely that toddlers will post their own selfies. Let privacy concerns aside here: simply seeing their parents share photos and videos will encourage children to play this game, too. Psychology backs this: according to one study, children’s screen times are closely linked to their parents’ viewing habits.  So what can be done? Giving children more opportunities to spend quality time offline will prove more efficient than forbidding them all Internet access or imposing restrictions to dissuade them from joining social networks. In today’s (still) largely unregulated digital environment, apps such as Messenger for kids can always pop up to disrupt the status quo, but the power of personal example and parents’ role should not be underestimated, either.


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