Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay. It will continue to penetrate through our family lives, and transform the children’s lives at school and even at home. There are indeed positive and negative effects of social media, but monitoring and mitigating its negative effects will be of great benefit to our children.
Before we jump into any conclusions about the destructive qualities of social media, we must not fail to acknowledge the fact that it does have several indisputable benefits that make our lives easier.
- Connecting with parents, friends, and relatives. One particular benefit is that it allows children to connect with family and friends, especially those whom they do not see very often or are abroad. Social media creates an avenue for children to share photos, videos, messages, and even moments (especially on video chat and live streaming) with loved ones. There is a constant avenue for communication between the child and the other people.
- Increased literacy, skills, and learning. Also, social media allows children to develop their literacy skills at an extremely rapid pace. Social media enhances the verbal and written communication skills of these children as well as their learning capabilities especially when they navigate through the technical skills and ever-evolving features of social media platforms. Social media can also open doors to a plethora of new information and learning, such as news and interesting facts through articles and videos shared by friends and specialized Facebook pages. It is even a source of real-time information, especially when children eagerly wait for class suspension announcements! Truly, there is always something to be learned on social media.
However, despite these benefits, there is an ever-looming dark side to social media usage, which may have compromising effects on children. They are listed below:
- Negative influence on the child’s belief system and actions. Based on the social learning theory by Bandura, et. al., children are especially prone to learning things from what they observe and see. As a result, they imitate these actions. The computer screen is no exception. When children see social media posts (whether they may be videos, photos, or articles) from social media contacts about selfies, violence, romantic love, and oppression being whitewashed or deemed acceptable, these inevitably affect their belief system, and ultimately, their actions. Researchers believe that repeated exposure to certain behaviors would lead the children to accept and embrace it as their own. That it’s merely an acceptable way of life or it’s a natural means of handling and responding to certain situations.
- Absorbing the harmful because of curiosity. Additionally, curiosity can definitely “kill the cat” when it comes to social media, as it can provide avenues for the child to discover subject matters of mature themes that he or she may not have even been aware of. And most horrifyingly, online predators and even seemingly innocent Facebook friends and acquaintances can serve as bad influences, causing the children to do regrettable things when coaxed into doing them.
This vulnerability is supported by cognitive development theory that says children’s cognitive capabilities at different stages determine if and how they understand the content being presented. Children are usually not yet able to fully grasp what is best for them when faced with malicious or persuasive intent and thus becomes more vulnerable when it comes to unfamiliar situations. One story relating to this is about an 8 year old girl who was invited through an online game friend (presumably a stranger or acquaintance) to have virtual sex with her on social media. Not being aware of what sex was all about, she made an internet search on what sex means. She then came across several erotic photos and videos, and eventually discovered how to pleasure herself. She then became addicted to pornographic materials and has to go through counselling to correct this behavior.
- Impeding of attention span and imagination. Trying to focus effectively and consistently are important tools in learning. Too much of social media could hinder your child’s attention span and imagination. This can be evidenced by the simple activity of reading. In the past, children would spend their time reading with vast amount of attention. The Internet today provides a different environment. Distraction becomes a norm when using social media, and it eliminates the need for a prolonged attention span. Sitting too long will certainly take time away from unstructured play which is an important function in a child’s development. With the entertainment provided by social media, it leaves lesser room for your child to be creative and imaginative.
It is important to note that the influence and control that we exert on our children are limited. Children grow up faster than we think, and soon enough, they will be teenagers who are greatly impressionable and prone to wavering to peer pressure. As such, we only have a few solid years to influence them in a positive way.
We as parents must be able to take some steps to ensure that social media’s negative effects do not grab a foothold on our children:
- Limit their screen time and monitor their social media activities. The American Academic of Pediatrics (AAP) suggested that parents should strictly monitor how long a child should use social media. For children 18 months and younger, screen time should be avoided altogether to allow stronger parent-child connection and total brain development. For school-aged children, I personally suggest that you do not totally ban them from using social media. Children today are smarter and more tech-savvy than you think. They may find ways to use social media behind your back and it might cause more harm. As such, I find it helpful to view social media with them.
- Find alternative forms of recreation. If your children are bored at home, there’s a plethora of activities that you can do to keep your child physically and mentally active. There are board games, bicycle riding, swimming, and other sports. However, the goal is to not stop the child from using technology altogether but to present fun alternatives that can distract them from social media usage. (If you want to find out more about how to stay active, pick up my children’s book “Bee Active” published by Hiyas.)
- Strengthen your personal relationships with them. One of the reasons children use social media is that the parents are too busy to spend time with them. This is one thing that many parents do not realize; social media becomes an alternative to receiving a parent’s time, affection and input. They now consult their friends online and find comfort in playing video games. I remember that I always ask my son these two questions when I pick him up at school. Can you share two incidents that made you happy today? Can you share one story that made you sad today? If we don’t strengthen our relationship in talking with them while they are still young, do not expect them to share much of their thoughts and feelings with you when they are in their teens.
This is the challenge I present to parents. You cannot enforce your children to spend less time on the screen when you yourself are doing it. You may not realize it, but as parents, you greatly influence your children, whether positively or negatively. If you are an avid social media user, do not be surprised that your child turns out to be one.