Defending Children from Screen Sickness
When Social Media Becomes Destructive
Your parents finally let you have a social media presence. It’s about time, all your friends got profiles months before you did. You start with Facebook. Brian’s posting pictures from his family’s trip to Paris, Ashley’s talking about how much she loves her new boyfriend, and all you’re doing is laying on your bed, scrolling through the highlights of everyone else’s lives. Nobody posts about the bad things in their lives. Everyone’s life looks perfect.
Their bodies look perfect, too. You get bored with Facebook, and switch over to Instagram and Snapchat. You know the pictures are filtered and edited, but you can’t help but be jealous. When you look in the mirror, your face looks plain in comparison, and you have pimples, frizz and soft spots where other have what looks like glowing skin, glossy hair and defined muscles.
You’re tired, so you change into pajamas, get under the covers, and close your eyes. After a few minutes, you decide you can’t sleep just yet — you’re not really that tired. You pick up your phone again. Wait, everyone’s talking about a party at Ashley’s house…and you weren’t invited?
We are only just now seeing the long-term negative effects that social media may have. Click to Tweet
What is the effect of social media on a developing brain?
Social media, like almost anything else, can be good in moderation. People can keep in contact with friends and loved ones who live far away. Young professionals entering the workforce can build a network of references and potential employers. It can promote charitable causes and help small businesses gain traction. It can build niche communities around common passions, and help people feel included in something larger than themselves.
However, like almost anything else, it can also be abused. This powerful tool at our fingertips is still relatively new. Facebook was launched in 2004, but it was only made public in 2012. Twitter started in 2006, Instagram in 2010, Snapchat in 2011. In terms of research, a little over or under a decade isn’t a significant amount of time. We are only just now seeing the long-term negative effects that social media may have.
One factor we are seeing that can make a drastic difference in how social media affects a person is the “age of onset,” so to speak – how old a person is when he or she first is introduced to social media.
In an interview with podcaster Joe Rogan, NYU professor and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains the difference a few years’ worth of maturity can make when first delving into social media.
“What may be good for adults may be terrible for 12-year-olds,” explained Haidt, as he proceeded to show several charts of data gathered from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, Higher Education Research Institute, and the Journal of the American Medical Association. The charts showed the rate of major depressive episodes in teens, the rate of psychological disorders (e.g. depression or anxiety) in students entering college, and the number of hospitalizations of teenage boys for non-fatal self-harm all were rising, and they all seemed to start to rise around 2010 — when most people in this adolescent demographic first started using social media.
“In terms of how children bully each other, social media does not affect boys very much, but man, does it affect girls,” said Haidt. “Boys threaten to punch each other in the face. Girls are just as aggressive as boys, but instead of punching, they bully by harming people’s relationships.”
Spreading rumors, excluding people from groups or conversations, and creating beauty/popularity competitions among students is easier to do on social media than it is in real life. Mob mentality is stronger on social media, and people tend to be less empathetic when there’s a lack of face-to-face interaction. Combine all this with the convenient option of posting from an anonymous account and not having to face repercussions for one’s words, and online platforms are a breeding ground for relational bullying and destroying a person’s reputation or self-worth.
Even if a child is lucky enough to not participate in or be a victim of cyber-bullying, social media’s virtues may be just as dangerous as its vices. The short-and-sweet posts and the flashy video clips encourage one’s attention span — which is typically already quite low in adolescents — to be even shorter. The constant updating of posts makes one feel as if he is missing out, and he must continuously scroll to find the next cool/funny/interesting thing.
People go on social media, intending to do a quick, two-minute check, but spend much more time on it without ever feeling the time pass. It’s the same psychology that keeps people sitting at slot machines for hours, long after the $50 buck limit they set is spent. Research has shown it triggers the brain’s reward center, gives them a rush of pleasure or adrenaline, and leaves them looking for more. Too much of this “dopamine high” and it becomes an addiction.
“Once we realize that these things are so attractive that they crowd out other healthy activities like playing outside and playing with groups of friends […] I hope we can have some reasonable norms,” said Haidt.
What sort of “reasonable norms”for social media would help adolescents’ mental health?
Jonathan Haidt offered a few of his own suggestions for parents:
- No technology at least a half-hour before bed, to allow kids’ brains time to calm down from all the fast-paced stimulation that technology provides.
- No devices (phones, laptops, etc.) in the bedroom during sleep/resting times. If the device is in the room with them, they may wake up and check it periodically throughout the night. Sleep deprivation in anyone, especially pre-teens and teenagers, is never beneficial.
- No social media until high school, when they’re brains are more developed/resilient and when bullying is more tame.
- Make sure they have “down time” where they can relax without having every moment of their life scheduled.
Sticking to some of these rules may be hard, especially if many of your child’s friends have social media, and you don’t want them to feel “left out.” Talk with the parents of your child’s friends; perhaps they’ll want to use research to better protect their kids’ mental health too.
When your kids do start using social media, make sure you’re “friends” with them and can see everything posted by them or posted by others to their wall or in comments.
As a final word of advice, make sure your your child still enjoys social activities they generally do in “real life.” Keep them in drama club, or church choir or the soccer team, whatever. Having fun, being active, and socializing with their peers face-to-face can be a powerful remedy for any ailment in the virtual world.
photo credit: latddotcom Infographic: Three Growing Expectations for the Future of Technology, According to Kids via photopin (license)