Is social media damaging to children and teens? We asked five experts
The following opinion piece, co-authored by Dr Joanne Orlando from the School of Education, was first published with full links on The Conversation(opens in a new window).
If you have kids, chances are you’ve worried about their presence on social media.
Who are they talking to? What are they posting? Are they being bullied? Do they spend too much time on it? Do they realise their friends’ lives aren’t as good as they look on Instagram?
We asked five experts if social media is damaging to children and teens.
Four out of five experts said yes
The four experts who ultimately found social media is damaging said so for its negative effects on mental health, disturbances to sleep, cyberbullying, comparing themselves with others, privacy concerns, and body image.
However, they also conceded it can have positive effects in connecting young people with others, and living without it might even be more ostracising.
The dissident voice said it’s not social media itself that’s damaging, but how it’s used.
Here are their detailed responses:
Joanne Orlando - Children & Tech Researcher - Yes
Yes, if it publicly displays too much detail about a child’s life online. Children have the right to privacy. This is actually one of the Conventions of the Rights of Childhood. If we want to share images of children online then we need to consider the short and long-term implications for them, not us.
Implications include their safety, the opportunity to not drag around their entire history with them for their whole life, and their opportunity to shape their digital identity in ways they feel comfortable. Parents are in a holding position of creating their child’s digital identity, and because of this temporary role, it’s important to err on the side of caution. That means caution in terms of how much of their life you are sharing, and the spin you add to the video, images and comments you post.
Karyn Healy - Psychologist - Yes
Yes, social media can cause damage. Unfettered access can expose youth to cyberbullying and inappropriate and graphic content with potentially devastating consequences. By using algorithms based on previous interest to prioritise content offered, social media can amplify any tendencies towards depression and self-harm, which can increase risk of suicide.
Modifications to reduce these risks have been encouraged by governments. There are also concerns excessive time on social media may reduce time for real social interaction and physical activities, but evidence for this is inconclusive.
Despite the dangers, having no access to social media is also associated with poorer well-being. Connecting through social media can strengthen friendships, and facilitate social support that protects children against depression and bullying. Social media enable youth to connect to address world problems which may benefit everyone.
Parents can help reduce the risks by ensuring children access only age-appropriate platforms, manage settings and maintain communication about use.
Susan J Paxton - Psychology Professor - Yes
Yes, social media use, especially frequent use of photo-based social media, is damaging to the mental health of young people. Adolescents are seeking their place in the world and one way they do this is by comparing their lives with the lives of friends, peers and celebrities presented on social media. Comparisons they make are typically negative as images that people post are, understandably, the most attractive they can produce and therefore, are unrealistic and idealised points of comparison.
In addition, girls especially tend to make comparisons regarding aspects of themselves about which they are already doubtful or unhappy. Consequently, higher levels of social media use can result in greater depressive symptoms, lower self-esteem, body image concerns and disordered eating. For most adolescents, living in the real world is hard enough without the unrealistic pressures of the ideal worlds presented on social media.
Tracii Ryan - Education Researcher - Yes
Yes, social media use does have the potential to negatively impact the mental health of children and adolescents. Empirical research focused on social media use indicates young people may experience psychological distress if they are exposed to cyberbullying, cyberostracism, cyberstalking, or if they have a tendency to compare themselves unfavourably with others.
Younger children may also experience anxiety and sleep disruptions if they inadvertently encounter graphic content on social media. However, many of these risks are not unique to the online world – they existed well before social media were available. In addition, it's important to recognise social media use does not automatically lead to negative psychological outcomes for all young people. In fact, research suggests social media use may actually improve psychological well-being for some, such as by reducing loneliness for young people who are socially isolated or experience social anxiety in face-to-face scenarios.
Marie Yap - Psychology Professor - No
Social media in itself is a neutral tool; it is the how, what, who, when and why of its use that determines the outcomes. Social media is a ubiquitous part of life, especially for our digital-native children and adolescents. Making it an enemy by focusing only on the negative aspects of social media and prohibiting its use will likely backfire.
Educating children and young people on cyber-safety and responsible social-media use is essential. Beyond that, parents/carers should provide ongoing supervision and guidance to younger children in their social media use, by engaging with them in the activity, setting boundaries (for example, who they connect with and what they share), and modelling responsible use themselves.
With adolescents who seek increasing autonomy from their parents (which is healthy and normal!), parents should encourage open conversation about the potential benefits and harms of social-media use, and agree on necessary boundaries to manage its use.
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