Screen-based media use is a hot topic when it comes to parenting. Over the past decade, I have been advised by my fellow mental health professionals, who specialise in children’s and young people’s digital usage, that anyone giving advice to parents about children’s digital usage needs to be encouraging children to become responsible users of technology. At face value, this seems reasonable advice.
The narrative of my colleagues goes along the lines that we can’t ban devices, so we have to teach young people how to use their devices and teach them to be responsible in the process. Some of my colleagues have told me I should ‘get with the program’. After all, they say, kids need to learn how to make decisions about the use of technology in the real world - and we should be ‘trusting’ them to make good decisions about their device use. When I have pointed out research to my colleagues, saying that children who use less social media are, in fact, happier compared to their friends who use social media, I have frequently been met with - “Well, [expert] opinion is still divided about this topic”. In other words, I have been met with equivocation.
I have reflected long and hard on the view that we need to be helping children our children to be responsible users of technology (as if they are free agents and it’s a child’s rite of passage for them to be on social apps) but I don't buy this democratic version of tech-use anymore - at least not as far as children are concerned.
Here’s the problem: What if there are two worlds going on? One is a ‘parallel’ world and the other is the ‘real’ world? In the parallel world, device usage is normalised and seen as a benign and a necessary part of child’s world? Children need to stay connected so their use
of digital devices is held up as a right. Anyone who dares differ from that version of reality is seen as a luddite or acting contrary to children’s need for autonomy.
However, in the real world there are some benefits but also some real dangers for children who are not old enough to critique what they are viewing nor understand the effects of what is happening to them. With 40% of children under 13 using Instagram we would be naïve to
think that it is not affecting children. https://www.businessinsider.com.au/kids-under-13-use-facebook-instagram-2021-5
In a recent (leaked) study by Facebook (the owner of Instagram) in 2021, found that one in three girls (32%) reported that when they feel bad about their bodies Instagram made them feel worse. Both boys and girls say that they are affected by being on Instagram. The Wall Street Journal, reported that 40% of boy users of Instagram said they experienced
negative social comparison.
When pushed to back up their claims on the benign nature of Instagram use, Facebook diffused the negative effects of Instagram saying that teenagers needed to be connected and that social apps, like Instagram, provide a platform for this to occur.
It is one thing to say we should give children a licence to use technology and teach them to be responsible in using it; it is quite another thing to assume that they will be able to control their use. What if their use of devices is something over which they have little rational control? What if the natural teenage urge to compare themselves o with others has been so magnified that they can’t rationally control such an urge?
The bad effect of unbridled social media exposure is particularly concerning for young girls. American researcher, Deborah Tannen, says that the shunning of young girls by other girls is correlated with increasing rates of self-harm and suicide, in ten-to-fourteen-year-olds in the US. The number of teenagers who feel ‘left out’ of their peer group (which they see on their social media platforms) is at an all-time high. This has seen a steady rise in self-harm injuries in young girls in recent decades.
Let me be clear here; I am not totally blaming Instagram. What I am saying however, is that when children are not old enough, to say, “No” to addictive applications, parents would be foolish to allow their children to have access to something that has been shown to be harmful to their mental health. So, allowing tech use and internet use, without any boundaries on their usage is tantamount to letting your child be exposed to something they can’t handle. The guidelines on Instagram usage clearly state you need to be over 13 to us this social app.
You may well think that your child is different but what makes Instagram addictive is that once a child starts looking at certain themes like dieting or body image pages, mathematical algorithms keep throwing up sites and links and images that conform to those searches. That’s the long and the short of it. It can be insidious and subtle but nonetheless a problem for children.
Parentshop has online webinars for Parents to help manage anxiety and build resilience in children and young people.
No Scaredy Cats - for children aged 2-12 years-old:
Resilience In Our Teens - for teens aged 13-18 years-old.