The use of screens has spiked over the over past two years and with it, so has the number of pre-teen accounts on social media. The bittersweet truth is that social media is here to stay, and it will only get more powerful. While it has numerous benefits such as providing crucial opportunities for interaction and building social networks, it can also have some major negative effects on a child’s development and social skills.
We have seen the benefits of social media, especially during the time of this pandemic when all of us were isolated and had minimal social interaction opportunities. However, we need to draw a line to limit the usage of the 15-year-old phenomenon.
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According to a 2017 study titled ‘Snapchat and Instagram are most popular social media platforms among American teens’, 76 per cent of young users (i.e. 13 to 17 year olds) use Instagram, 75 per cent of teens use Snapchat, 66 per cent of teens use Facebook, 47 per cent of kids use Twitter, and the list goes on.
Now the question that arises is, why are young minds so driven towards social media? From the ages of 8 to 10, children go through emotional changes, and they seek social rewards such as approval and attention from their parents – often, parents hand them rewards like smartphones and tablets instead. This reinforces their bond with social media.
As per a survey by the US-based Pew Research Center in 2016, 64 per cent of kids had access to tablets, phones, and laptops in that year compared to around 42 per cent in 2012.
5 reasons children are drawn to social media
1. Brain and social rewards.
When kids are between the ages of 10 and 12, their brain undergoes certain changes. During this time, the receptors of oxytocin, also called the happy hormone, and the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for the reward reflex, are busy multiplying in a region of the brain called ventral striatum. The result is a greater need for admiration, attention, and validation – all of which are given in steady quantity on social media.
One could ask of course, why adults are less vulnerable than children in this case. The reason for this lies in the fact that adults have a much more mature prefrontal cortex, an area that helps regulate emotional responses to social rewards.
2. A record one can revisit
One compliment given at a particular time by one person – it just doesn’t cut it anymore. For children today, sporting a certain outfit or posting a video means,
- Instant gratification or vilification– i.e. in the form of followers and likes or down votes.
- Validation that does not fade from memory for the social media channel has recorded the responses.
3. Social sadness
Because social media’s reward system is one of diminishing results, young children who spend excess time on social media are more anxious and less happy. According to a study by the US-based University of Michigan in 2013, participants who spent more time on social media reported declining satisfaction levels. The use of social media does not enhance well-being; instead, it results in undermining it.
4. Body image issues
As a teenager, one is still coming to terms with body consciousness and self-image. This makes them more vulnerable to the unrealistic ideals promoted on social media. The Centre for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore conducted study showed that 30 per cent of users feel anxious and sad about their specific body parts and start comparing their photos with their friends' photos.
There is a devastating online bullying cycle that children may get trapped in that erodes their sense of self. They are attracted and may get hooked on to online interactions that may then turn abusive. Cyberbullying results in unwanted body image issues, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, including addiction.
How parenting can safeguard a child’s interest
Unfortunately, we are still unaware of the long-term impact of social media on young minds. However, since social media is here to stay, it is essential that we, as parents, do this:
- Delay the introduction to the medium until the kids are sufficiently mature to filter content.
- Try monitoring the content they are exposed to.
- Limit their screen time.
- Explain the dangers of too much social media – and the predators that may lurk behind the screens.
How to do it
Forgo all judgement: Listen to your child’s concerns and problems without offering opinions – unless you are asked for it. This will maintain an open channel of communication between you and your child, so when he or she needs you, they will come to you without fear of recrimination.
It’s a new, digital world with new ramifications – it’s time to use new methods to combat the fallout and encourage the benefits.
- UAE-based Dr Arif Khan, Paediatric Neurologist and Founder of Neuropedia, Children's Neuroscience Center.