How to Minimize the Adverse
Effects of Social Media on Children
Social media has reaped the benefits of the halo effect when it comes to facilitating worldwide connection and is thus seen as a portal to easier communication, long distance friendships and relationships, exposure to news from around the world, and access to virtually any piece of information ever recorded. At the same time, social networks have been a great ally during the past few years, making it possible to continue work and school during the pandemic, and to communicate with family, friends and colleagues as best we can. While this is true, accepting social media—and in doing so, the economic goals behind it—without reservation may set forth a chain of events affecting both the cognitive areas of the brain, as well as the social and emotional lives of every adult. In fact, we may already be seeing these changes today, which begs the question of what effects will it have on those deemed to be most vulnerable: children in developmental stages.
Over the past few years, we have seen an increase in social media platform use, mainly Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat, especially in children. Usually seen and marketed as a tool for homework and access to knowledge as well as compatible social groups, leisure time and entertainment make up a big chunk of what these devices are used for. This habit, without adequate adult supervision, has been linked to abnormalities in the development of children and mental health problems “including anxiety, depressive symptoms, and body image concerns”
Every piece of content we consume evokes thoughts and feelings in us: “Is this person older or younger than me? Do I agree with what they’re saying? Would I have done the same thing? etc.” This is no different for children. In a period when many children are having to discern between reality and fantasy, good and evil, the balance between trust and mistrust, consuming content that is difficult to conceptualize or discern can have negative effects on their cognitive development and social, emotional development.
As far as recommendations go, we know that children are sometimes unable to share what they feel verbally but rather express their hurt and frustrations through unconscious changes in behavior. These changes can be seen in their eating habits, sleep hygiene, defiant attitudes at school, or a general reluctance to communicate. Consequently, adults around them must be watchful for these shifts in demeanor, as it could be key to helping them talk through that which is troubling them. Furthermore, for both children and adults, being exposed to too much frightening, emotional or traumatic material can end up immobilizing us. It would be sensible to inform ourselves about the basic and necessary aspects of the topic, making sure that we have processed the information beforehand, and not engage in these talks in the middle of an emotional crisis. If we are nervous, sad or experiencing anger and frustration, children will pick up on that and deem it the correct reaction to have.
Another way to start these conversations is by talking to kids about the recent headlines they’ve seen covered in the news, online, or heard through word of mouth and figure out how much they know about the details behind the event. It’s important to first identify what they know, listen to the vocabulary they’re using, and if they have any initial doubts regarding the subject. In this sense, we are trying to avoid oversharing any details that might be too graphic or traumatic for young kids, and instead focusing on addressing their fears, concerns, and personal conclusions. During this process, make sure to use clear, age-appropriate language to explain and be present while answering their questions. Assume that if we do not address them at home, odds are our children will look to other means such as news networks, social media, and friends, sources that might not yield the most accurate information on the topic at hand.
There will be things that we cannot avoid as parents, such as events that happen at school or nearby towns; however, one way to support children is to identify and address the emotions they are feeling. It is important that the adult is able to create a safe and trusting environment inside the home when it comes to the free expression of their emotions, thoughts, and doubts. The home may be the one of the few places where children are able to ask what they want to know and express how they feel without judgment.
It is important to identify if the child’s behavioral changes persist alongside clear signs of anxiety, worry, or frustration regarding recent news events. If this is the case, do not hesitate to seek support from your local health professional, preferably a licensed child psychologist. As long as parents remain mindful of these considerations, it is possible to allow children to use social media in appropriate amounts under adult supervision with minimal risks of them becoming adversely affected in lasting ways.
Marina Alvelais is the Dean of Psychology and Coordinator of the Masters in Neuropsychology at CETYS Universidad. She can speak to the electrical science of the brain as well as cognitive and emotional processes when it comes to trauma.