We all remember the ‘why’ stage, either our own or that of our kids. Why is the sky blue? Why do I have to go to bed so early? Why can’t I play football in the kitchen while you’re cooking dinner? The incessant questioning, the desperate need to understand may be maddening for the target but it marks a key stage in a child’s development of language and cognition.
It also provides parents and teachers with an opportunity to explain things. By helping children to understand the world around them, we help them learn to respond in a safe and healthy way. They begin to start processing information rather than simply reacting, developing the knowledge and skills that will be vital for the rest of their lives.
Could the same approach be used to mitigate the concerning impact of social media on young people? It has now become widely recognised that their fervent use of social media has the potential to cause emotional and psychological problems. A report published be the Children’s Commissioner earlier this year offered some alarming conclusions. Youngsters are finding social media hard to manage, becoming over-dependent on it and get increasingly anxious about keeping up with peers as they grow up.
Other statistics support the growing concerns over the emotional impact of social media use. A study from the University of Sheffield found that just an hour spent on social networks reduces the probability of a child being completely happy with their life by 14%. The NSPCC has blamed social media use for the rapid rise in kids being admitted to hospital following self-harm, and our own research found that one in seven Generation Z-ers (those born after 1997) say social media negatively affects their health.
A balanced perspective is obviously required. Social media can offer real benefits as children develop into adolescents, but the negative impact must also be addressed, especially as we can’t yet know the long-term consequences. The medium is here to stay; we must consider how best to help young people manage it rather than naively thinking we can restrict or ignore it.
The current furore over the apparent manipulation of Facebook user data has added another disturbing angle for potential harm to young social media users. Young people may be more vulnerable to incidents of social engineering online and they often share their data too readily on sites such as Facebook and Instagram. We must teach them to reduce their blind trust in big tech. Parents and teachers need to prepare children for the potential risks associated with data sharing online – and this should form part of digital literacy that is already being taught in schools.
Encouraging young people to ask questions and arming them with knowledge is an important first step. If we can help them to step back and understand what social networks are – how they work, how the companies that run them make money and what the potential for harm is – we can encourage children to use them in a way that works for them, but also think more critically about the medium as a whole. This in turn will nurture resilience when navigating the digital sphere, just as we teach young people to cope with the stresses, traumas and risks of life in the physical world. Knowing how to navigate the internet and stay safe is a critical life skill as we move towards a new digital age.
Don’t assume kids have all the answers just because they can navigate digital devices better than we can. It’s time to bring back curiosity. Encourage their questions and have discussions in the real world to keep them safe in the online world.