Children nowadays have a way of connecting and interacting continuously with friends. They use various electronic gadgets, play games with people from other countries, have live face-to-face conversations via Skype, etc. It’s hard to even imagine a childhood without the internet and social media.
In a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015, 89% of teenagers reported using at least one social media site such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. At that time, the most popular was Facebook, with 71% of teens between the ages of 13 and 17 reported using it . In a more recent study conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in December of 2016, Instagram and Snapchat led, with about 75% of teens reported using them, while Facebook usage declined slightly to 66%. However, the use of social media in general was on the rise, as 94% of teens age 13-17 reported using them .
Benefits of Social Media
1. Making Social Connections
Social media provide a convenient way for children to connect with their peers and keep in touch with friends they already spend time with in the offline world. This mutual, constant availability can lead to the strengthening of these relationships – they have someone they can share their problems with and ask for advice, or just chat with if they’re feeling bored. Furthermore, they use social media to explore their interests and connect with their community, which helps them further develop existing relationships with like-minded peers. Researchers from the Netherlands found that children between the ages of 11 and 14 who use social media report a higher level of friendship quality. Even though this study focused on their version of Facebook, authors believe their findings can be generalized to users of other social media beyond the Netherlands .
Social media also makes it easier for children to make new friends, as they don’t have to deal with the stress that comes from meeting new people face-to-face. For example, they don’t have to worry about being faced with an awkward silence when they feel pressure to speak but aren’t quite sure what they should say next. Texting doesn’t always require an immediate response, so children with less confidence in their social skills can take the time to come up with an adequate answer and reply with less pressure than in a face-to-face situation. In a longitudinal study, researchers concluded that instant messaging increases the quality of existing friendships because adolescents feel less inhibited and disclose their inner thoughts and feelings to one another earlier on, which enhances the relationship .
One of the undisputable benefits of social media is the ability to overcome geographical barriers. Using social media to keep in touch with friends who live in a different city, state, or country is a great way of ensuring a relationship doesn’t suffer because of distance. Two kids from Argentina and Iceland can communicate online just as easily as two kids who live in the same neighborhood. And, social media can help bring together diverse groups of children. Having contact and communicating with children of a diverse cultural, ethnic, and religious background can be the key to developing tolerance and respect for different groups of people.
2. A Helpful Tool for Dealing with Problems
There are many ways in which children can communicate online while staying anonymous, i.e. joining Reddit. Shy children, who often feel socially awkward, might use this controlled environment to express themselves and speak their mind without the fear of negative offline consequences or of being stigmatized. This gradually leads to the development of higher self-esteem. On social media, it’s easier to find someone who’s got the same problems and with whom one can talk and be listened to. Reading about the experiences of children who are dealing with the same issues as you are is an invaluable basis for evaluating your own problems.
The internet in general is a place where children can easily access online information about their health concerns, or, for example, a proper diet. Health resources are increasingly available to youth online, but social media can provide even more health information, as users share medical information online with each other [5, 6]. Also, children with chronic illnesses can join supportive networks of people with similar conditions. People with diabetes, for example, often create online communities, which allows them to connect to one another and to members of the healthcare community .
3. A Useful Resource in Education
Students often use social media to share information about school assignments, as well as to organize their time in accordance with their homework. Facebook groups, for example, present a common mode of communication and for the exchange of ideas. There are even schools that embrace social media as a teaching tool and find that it’s a necessary resource in education. However, there are some disadvantages when it comes to using technology and social media in the context of education. If you want to learn more about that as well as how children can best use the internet for their educational benefit, you should take a look at our article on this topic.
Potential Risks of Social Media
1. Social Media Addiction
All those likes, comments, pictures, texts, etc. can be overwhelming for children. As previously noted, children can reap many benefits from social media, especially in the area of socialization. On the other hand, constantly being online and on-call for friends can inevitably lead to sleep deprivation, which can cause further problems. It’s important not to become dependent on quick replies and a blizzard of instant messaging. If children are spending all that time on social media they’re probably neglecting other commitments at home and school. This also leaves them with less time for those necessary and irreplaceable face-to-face interactions with others.
2. The Burden of Comparisons with Idealized Depictions of Others
Despite the upside of having a large amount of information available online regarding health and other issues, there’s clearly a downside. Much of what children might see on social media is a calculated and idealized picture someone is trying to present. Most people don’t post photos of themselves on Instagram when they’re sad or angry. You usually only see happy moments, such as them enjoying a party, or going to the movies with lots of friends, which seems to suggest they have a perfect, worry-free life. When children see the idealized life someone they follow on social media appears to be leading, they might ask, “What am I doing wrong?” and “Why is my life not like that?”, and feel like failures.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that it’s not hard to stumble upon complete disinformation online regarding an issue that’s important to children. Sometimes it’s challenging for even the most experienced users to tell if a source is accurate or if there’s a hidden agenda behind the information.
3. The Dangers of Disinhibition and Cyberbullying
Improper use of social media and a lack of restraint in online interactions can lead to the development of behavior patterns that aren’t commonly a part of life in the offline world. Anonymity is a two-edged sword. On one hand, it can help children overcome shyness and social anxiety, but it can also stimulate unwanted reactions, such as hostile or aggressive online behavior, potentially lead to cyberbullying. Bullying and cyberbullying have some elements in common, such as aggression, power imbalance, and the repetition of this type of behavior . Researchers believe we should look at these two as distinct phenomena. Someone who is cyberbullying doesn’t have to be physically stronger than the victim, and usually doesn’t get to see the effect his or her behavior had on the victim. Another difference is in accessibility of the victim. Whereas bullying mostly happens at school, cyberbullying can be engaged in at any time and reach a much wider audience, which makes it potentially even more dangerous .
4. Invasion of Privacy
From the moment children start using social media and spending time on the internet, they start making a digital footprint. This can have ramifications for their future personal or professional life. One part of the problem is sharing too much information, which can be used by advertisers or third parties. About 90% of boys and girls share their real names and photos of themselves on social media. Most of them also share their birthdate, interests, city where they live, school name, etc.  We’re also witnessing people revealing personal information on Facebook posts, sharing their personal photos on Instagram daily, or indicating their political views on Twitter.
Besides the negative consequences of posting too much information about themselves online, potential threats for children also include security attacks such as hacking, malware, or even identity theft. A recent study by the Pew Research Center shows that internet users are able to answer fewer than half of the questions when asked about their knowledge of cybersecurity . Although this research was conducted on adults, we have no reason to believe children would be any more informed. This makes children vulnerable to scams and invasions of privacy, especially if they didn’t get adequate education on these topics.
What Can Parents Do?
Let’s face it – most children nowadays can’t imagine life without the internet. As we’ve seen, social media is a helpful tool in many aspects of children’s lives, when used properly. On the other hand, if used recklessly, they can cause more harm than good. With this in mind, we’ll now go over a couple of practices that can help parents ensure their children use social media to their advantage.
– If your children are spending too much time on Facebook or another social media app, you should help them find some other activity to fill in their time. Try talking to them and seeing if they’re interested in taking up a hobby, or a sport.
– Try to set an example for your children and don’t use your cell phone too often. As a matter of fact, don’t use it at all in front of them, especially not for endlessly scrolling through social media, reading the news, etc. Use the free time you have together to connect and bond. Make a rule for everyone in your household – for example, that no one should use their phone during a meal or while having family time in the living room . This will help them realize that the outside world is more important than the online one, and hopefully, they’ll understand that they aren’t going to miss anything important if they don’t reply to a text message right away.
– Don’t invade their privacy! One study suggests it may not be the best strategy to intervene in your children’s use of social media . A better approach for children’s online safety implies not necessarily intervening, but mediating their online behavior. For example, you should occasionally monitor the information they post online and talk to them about it, but you shouldn’t read their private conversations or use parental monitoring software to block content that contains online risks. If you merely reduce their exposure to online risks, they won’t be able to learn how to effectively cope with them. The suggested approach is to provide children with more autonomy to take risks, as well as for parents to take corrective action to mitigate those risks .
– Make sure you help your children learn not to evaluate themselves in comparison with an idealized image someone presented on social media. Let them know that they should be what they feel and think they should be, and not be driven by their perception of unrealistic depictions of others.
– You should suggest your children make their profiles private on social media such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, so that their posts are only visible to their friends. Educate your children to cautiously and more securely access the online world. Think about enrolling them in one of the many interesting upcoming projects here at Nobel, such as the one concerned with teaching children about networking, firewalls, ports & internet security, etc.
1. Lenhart, A., Duggan, M., Perrin, A., Stepler, R., Rainie, H., & Parker, K. (2015). Teens, social media & technology overview 2015 (pp. 04-09). Pew Research Center [Internet & American Life Project].
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