British toddlers are now increasingly likely to be TikTok users, according to their parents, but what exactly is that doing to their brains?
Nearly 16% of three and four year olds watch content on the video social media app, according to research commissioned by media regulator Ofcom, which surveyed parents. Meanwhile a third of all children (33%) in the five to seven-year-old age group and 60% of eight to 11-year-olds use the site.
The official terms of TikTok ban under 13s from using the app and its moderators have instructions to pay attention for content produced by younger users and to block their accounts. But the research shows the age checks on new users are being disregarded.
Dr Amy Orben, a researcher at the University of Cambridge focussing on how digital technologies affect adolescent psychological wellbeing, says it’s tricky to know the exact impact social media is having on younger children.
“Doing research on social media users under the age of 13 is really difficult, because they’re actually not legally allowed to be on the platform,” she tells HuffPost UK. “That’s really held back any sort of knowledge about how young people and social media.”
Still, we do have some insights into how social media might be impacting the brain.
What’s going on with your brain when you look at social media?
How does social media affect the development of our little ones? The US Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study found that time spent on social media was associated with lower scores in tests of both fluid intelligence, which is the ability to think and reason regardless of prior experience, and crystallised intelligence, which relates to experience and accumulation of knowledge. It followed children from the age of 10.
However, the study found that among all digital media, time spent on social media was the least associated with structural brain changes connected to vulnerability to psychiatric diseases.
It’s also no secret that there’s a link between high social media use and mental health issues among young people.
Dr Deeksha Kunwar, mental health professional at Wockhardt Hospital, Mumbai, told News9: “For most teenagers, using social media is to get instant validation, either through comments, shares or likes. The instant gratification gives rise to a dopamine rush, which makes us go back to it, every single time. But it’s also important to understand that your perception of yourself (or self-image) sometimes gets destroyed when you start comparing your life with others.“
In another study involving the University of Oxford and University of Cambridge, published in Nature Communications, researchers highlight that high social media use predicted lower life satisfaction at the age of 19 years for both genders. The findings hint that social media might be associated with developmental changes, possible changes in the structure of the brain, or to puberty, which occurs later in boys than in girls.
Can being on social media at a young age affect children’s mental health?
Dr Orben believes the way social media affects children is a bit of a mixed picture.
“I think seeing specific content can always impact people in certain ways,” she says. “So seeing very distressing content can change their emotion just as seeing very positive content, or being able to connect with people that are similar to them that they might not be able to connect to in their offline environment, for example.
“It could be the content that you watch, but also the interactions that you have, or what you’re posting. So there are a lot of different activities we do on social media that will impact our emotions in different ways.
At what age do you think children should be using social media?
“It’s very hard to put a specific number on it because the impact of social media really depends on what you use it for,” Dr Orben says.
“A colleague of mine gave their children a smartphone at about age five. However, he’s very tech savvy and limited the smartphone to just taking pictures and listening to audiobooks and those activities are very easy for even young children to enjoy, whilst not be exposed to certain types of content.”
As children start to become interested in social media, Dr Orben says it’s important to consider what activities are appropriate for that specific age group.
“You know, it needs to be quite controlled early on in childhood, but you might be able to want to provide more freedoms later on when for example, teenagers want to explore who they are and and often want to be more removed from controlled environments,” she says.
What are the signs that are child is becoming addicted to social media?
The Royal Society for Paediatrics and Child Health did a really great report on screen time and children and how to guide parents on the topic, says Dr Orben.
“They didn’t recommend a specific time to spend on social media or specific age limits for screens. But they said that it’s really important that more or less screens and social media should complement a child’s life benefit it should be the kind of icing on the cake,” she says.
“However if they start to act like life is centred around the technology they use so the technology it becomes a cake itself, then that’s when these problems start occurring. So I think it’s really it’s really dependent on the individual which is difficult, but I think that’s what I would fix on.”