Earlier this year, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) surveyed the social media usage of 3400 children across 6 Indian states. According to the study, Facebook (36.8%) and Instagram (45.50%) are the two most popular networking sites among users aged between 8-17 years. The eligible age to open a Facebook or an Instagram account is 13. But without any strict policy in place, anyone, at any age, with access to Internet can open an account on a social media platform of their choice.
The report also noted that social media platforms house and spread a diverse range of content, the majority of which is improper or detrimental to children. This might include everything from violent or obscene content to online abuse and cyberbullying. As a result, effective oversight and enforcement are required.
Soon after, in a blogpost dated September 27, 2021, Facebook stated its plans to temporarily halt development of a new app aimed towards children. This move comes amid recent media reports that confirm what we have suspected for some time: Instagram makes teen females feel horrible about their bodies, and many people blame it for their anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
BOOM spoke with experts on how algorithms and apps are endangering our children, and how can parents be active social media gatekeepers.
How does social media impact brain and emotional development in kids?
Whistleblowers at Facebook and Google have long warned us about the addictive nature of social media apps. The popular Netflix docudrama 'The Social Dilemma' also highlighted how social media companies manipulate the reward pathways in our brains to release dopamine, a feel-good chemical that helps us build interpersonal bonds. Excessive use of social media platforms and apps can produce so much dopamine in the reward circuit that they resemble an addictive drug. This means, the more time users spend on these platforms, the more advertising revenue they generate, filling their coffers.
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"The impact of social media on a child's emotional intelligence and brain development is variable and depends on multiple factors," said Dr. Sapna Bangar, Psychiatrist and Head, Mpower - The Centre, Mumbai. "However, what we do know is that the teenage brain is still developing and vulnerable to external influences. Teenagers' emotional brains govern them more than their cognitive brains, so they are more likely to be impulsive, not weigh the pros and drawbacks, and put themselves in risky situations, all of which add to the dangers of social media."
What is the right age to introduce kids to social media?
Dr Bangar thinks that, depending on their development, children can be exposed to social media at any point between the ages of 13 and 15. "Many of the young people go through a phase where they don't like how they appear," she said. When they compare themselves to photoshopped or enhanced images on social media, it creates 'unrealistic expectations' and a persistent need to improve. The doctor explained that this can lead to an unhealthy obsession with weight and appearance.
Parents use technology to entertain, distract, or comfort their children. In the pandemic, screens and video learning platforms became a routine, in a way where devices took on the role of a teacher, friend (without no way to step out of homes) and often a de facto co-parent.
What impact does social media have on parent-child attachment?
Experts believe that there are several economic, social, physical, and psychological factors that can have a long-term impact on parent-child relationships and, in very precise ways, on the person a kid will become. Sneha Mikhail Dey, an educational and parent-child counsellor explained, "Social media influences how people view and grasp relationships, as well as how a relationship is accepted in society. However, everything from how peaceful and safe the child feels with you to what they expect from you as a parent is often influenced by your parenting style."
And while all parents are concerned about their children, Dr. Bangar pointed out that parents from lower socioeconomic strata are considerably less aware of the dangers of social media than parents from middle and upper socioeconomic strata. "They are more worried with how much time children spend on their phones than with what they may or may not be doing while staring at a screen," the doctor said.
Dey emphasised the importance of interpreting children's behaviour to communicate more effectively with them. She calls this kind of parenting "emotionally attuned parenting," and believes it is the cornerstone of every parent-child relationship. It aids in the development of emotional resilience, life skills, and healthy behaviours in youngsters. "Parents should pay special attention to their children's problems and address them. This way, they can teach kids how to use social media efficiently to achieve their goals, such as building connections, making new friends, etc. without jeopardising their safety."
It's difficult for parents to keep track on everything their children do on the internet. Furthermore, as social dynamics change, there is always the concern of not infringing on a child's 'me-time' and privacy.
So, what can parents do to keep their children secure on social media?
The primary advice from Dr Bangar is for parents to stay connected with their teenage children. "Have difficult conversations with your children, and keep a channel of dialogue open where they feel comfortable coming to you about things like bullying, body shaming, or anything sexual in nature," suggested Dr. Bangar.
Parents, she said must accept that children's sentiments are valid and that pushing boundaries is a natural part of growing up. She also recommends having "parental locks and checks in place" so that parents are not always spying on their children. "Parents must be extra vigilant to model healthy screen usage such as taking regular breaks from screens, spending family time that is screen free, simple rules like no screens during mealtimes. If children watch their parents follow such rules, they are more likely to do so too," she added.
How do we rethink and reset digital behaviour for our kids in a post pandemic world?
Over the last two years, many kids have been exposed to overwhelming stress as their parents lost jobs and financial security to the pandemic. At the same time, vital supports such as school, health care services, and other community programs have been interrupted. With the only access to the outside world via internet, technology became a critical tool for children's access to learning, play, entertainment, and social interactions.
This in turn, has given rise to impulsive behaviours that are accompanied by feelings of uncertainty, despair, or rage. Parents must, therefore, play an important role as gatekeepers by detecting when their children are emotionally distraught, participating in self- destructive behaviour, and understanding how to get help for them.
As we go back to the 'normal', with schools and playgrounds being active again, it's a critical time for children. "Parents must begin talking to their children about it and layout that they will be expected to spend more time outside of their houses, doing things like going to school and playing outside." The parent-child counsellor said that creating a timetable for children by providing a structured atmosphere through planned screen breaks and family time will be important.
The author is a freelance writer and a fellow at @SRFmentalhealth.