We live with a digital generation, where messages replace calls, where posts on a timeline are worth 10 in the inbox. This is even truer for adolescents who’ve grown up with screens for company. And while the past year of the pandemic only strengthened that bond, it is imperative to gauge whether this relationship is healthy.
The most important question that presents itself here is: At what age is it okay for a child to begin using social media? The consensus points to age 13. Dr Lavina Ahuja, clinical psychologist at German Neuroscience Center, explains: “Most social media sites do not allow children to have an account prior to the age of 13. I agree with that minimum age as prior to 13 they might not have the cognitive and emotional awareness to manage the responsibility of a social media account.”
But that is really the ideal – reality comes in different shades. Caroline Knorr, a San Francisco-based parenting expert with the nonprofit organisation Common Sense Media, was quoted by American news company CNN as saying, “In the United States, our understanding is that about half of kids have some form of social media by age 12.” She based this on a survey of 1,786 parents in the United States whose children were aged 8 to 18 in 2016.
I always start from the law because if we tell our kids, it’s okay to set up an account before they’re 13 years of age, we are sending them a powerful message that it’s okay to break the law and that’s a difficult moral position to come back from as parents or as adults.
The study, as quoted by CNN, had found that overall, 56 per cent of the children had their own social media accounts, based on the parents' survey responses. Among those children, the parents reported that the average age when initially signing up for the account was 12.6 years.
For Éléonore Brocq, Clinical Psychologist ,Medcare Camali Mental Health Clinic, it’s doubly important to stay within legal lines. “I always start from the law because if we tell our kids, it’s okay to set up an account before they’re 13 years of age, we are sending them a powerful message that it’s okay to break the law and that’s a difficult moral position to come back from as parents or as adults,” she says.
Of course, it’s more than an age issue – it’s about emotional and mental stability – both of which can be impacted by exposure to inappropriate materials. M Thenral, Specialist Psychiatrist, Aster Clinic, explains that parents need to be educated about various risks posed by social media apps and choose age-appropriate ones by screening for the following four Cs:
- Content risks - disgusting, upsetting, cruel, violent or sexual content.
- Contact risks - strangers and predators who prowl these sites and try to groom their victims.
- Conduct risks - children acting in ways that might hurt others or being victim of such kind of behaviour as bullying and sexting.
- Contract risks – signing unfair contracts, subscribing to inappropriate channels, making in-app purchases, paving the way to identity threats or frauds.
According to a study titled Coping with ‘COVID-19: How Young People Use Digital Media to Manage Their Mental Health’, conducted by US-based tech research firm Common Sense in collaboration with Hopelab and the California Health Care Foundation, “Exposure to hate speech on social media is up substantially over the past two years. About one in four 14- to 22-year-olds say they ‘often’ encounter body shaming (29 per cent), racist (27 per cent) or sexist (26 per cent) comments on social media.” This study underlines the importance of monitoring social media exposure, which may impact a young mind in quite a detrimental way.
Before introductions to social media are conducted, say the experts, it is important to talk to them about the pros and cons of the platform. “Even kids who are not looking for trouble and are stable are likely to stumble across explicit material on any major platforms. You need to prepare your child about this possibility to protect them being confused about what they could come across,” explains Thenral. “This ‘talk’ should be before letting them using the device but also be recurring once or twice a year to have a clear vision about what they are experiencing at each moment of their development.”
What should this ‘talk’ entail?
Brocq says that we should explain to the kids and allow them to post as per their age and developmental skills (cognitive and affective developmental skills). She says: “For example, they should not uploading or sharing inappropriate messages, pictures or videos. They should be respectful in posts and when sharing content.” The rule of thumb should be: if it’s not okay to say something or do something face to face, it’s not okay online.
“You can keep track of it by going through social media privacy guidelines and settings with your child before allowing him/her to use the social media. That’s the best way, I believe. It’s all about communication and sharing,” she adds.
• Losing interest in other activities – preferring media use, neglecting other hobbies and activities.
• Pre occupation with screen media
• Media as a mood booster – being online seems to be the only thing that helps the child feel better.
• Tolerance - constantly using a device and keeps wanting more and more screen time.
• Withdrawal - frustration and behavioural problems when cannot use media.
• Difficulty controlling the screen use - throwing temper tantrums when asked to turn-off devices.
• Deception - sneaking a device or lying about the time spent on using it.
• Decline in academic performance
• Effects of physical health - if child does not get enough sleep or is tired throughout the day.
• Psycho-social disturbances- becoming less interactive and no longer seeking friends.
Did you know? As per another study conducted by Common Sense Media back in 2019, not including homework, tweens spend an average of 4 hours 44 minutes per day using screen media while teens spend an average of 7 hours 22 minutes using screen media. This time band only got wider as the pandemic progressed – today more and more parents find their kids stuck and craving screen time. One Lebanese mum-of-three based in Dubai who has requested anonymity said of her nine-year-old son: “He doesn’t know what’s good [and what’s] not [anymore].”
She was talking about her nine-year-old son who has been lashing out at his siblings when he doesn’t get his iPad.
Being a role model is the most powerful form of educating. When technology becomes a family affair, more autonomy, independence, interdependence, responsibility, trust and respect for privacy follows automatically
Teens are notoriously secretive, so what can a parent do to stay a part of their social media exchanges? Dr Ahuja suggests a relaxed approach. She says, talk to them about their social media - ask them if someone has posted something that made them think or made them smile or made them upset or uncomfortable (even if they don't understand why).
“Teach them to be aware of the impact social media is having on them - do they compare themselves to others and does that make them feel bad about themselves? Having conversations with your teens and asking them questions to help with open communication can help parents stay part of their child's social media exchanges,” she suggests.
Prior to age 13 they might not have the cognitive and emotional awareness to manage the responsibility of a social media account.
It’s also important to limit social media usage, as chasing ‘likes’ can be addictive. “Research shows that screen time, and especially mediums that provide instant rewards such as gaming or someone liking our social media posts increase dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which plays a role in how we experience pleasure, and it affects mood, movement, impulse control, attention and concentration. As dopamine is related to the rewards-centre of our brains and supports the reinforcement of enjoyable behaviours, it is often involved in addiction,” explained Cabrière Jordaan, Counselling Psychologist at German Neuroscience Center.
“Parents need to formulate a healthy family media usage plan to help children navigate the digital world. Having kids at various developmental stages makes this task quite challenging and the plan has to be personalised and tailored accordingly. Parents should research the age appropriateness and safety ratings of the apps and programmes.
“They need to revisit the plans and should update periodically as the child grows. Watching together, enjoying family movies, catching up with distant relatives and friends on a festive occasion as a family digitally, sending e-cards, reading together in a tablet, playing multiplayer games or having PlayStation gaming console for the whole family to participate in can make the digital moments more meaningful and memorable. This increases the emotional well-being and bonding among the family members, defusing the tension over the media use. Being a role model is the most powerful form of educating. When technology becomes a family affair, more autonomy, independence, interdependence, responsibility, trust and respect for privacy follows automatically,” adds Dr Thenral.
We live in a digital landscape – but some face-to-face time can help with that. Life offline can tend to life online; it just begins with a chat.
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