Social media platforms, chatrooms, WhatsApp and text messaging, online gaming – the advent of web-based connections is affecting our ability to form face-to-face relationships with people.
Generation Alpha, growing up in this digital world, is being affected the most. Kids don’t make friends like they used to. They use emojis instead of searching for descriptive words. They don’t build relationships like we used to because instead of organically letting natural friendships form, they have the option to stare at a screen from their bedroom. They ‘play’ games with friends online, rather than meeting in person. Previous generations used to get shouted at to come in from playing outside – now parents are urging kids to drop the screen and go outside to play!
You may be questioning: why is this even a problem? As long as kids are happily occupied on a screen, do we need to interfere? Is the quality of a friendship dependent on what medium you are using to connect?
In actual fact, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) tests show that 80% of communication is physically looking into another person’s face. Consider the percentage of the brain that is taking part in the act: when you communicate via screens, you use no more than 14% of your ’communication brain.’ In other words, it is a totally different way to communicate, and a poorer communication into the bargain.
Of course, a lot of this is a result of two years of quarantine and lockdown periods, when we became thankful that we could at least manage to interact with others through a digital device. But will it cause long-term harm in the future? Too much screen time is already creating chasms in the family dynamic. Are families spending too much time staring at screens, rather than spending quality time together?
While the ability to connect with everyone around the world is no doubt one of the internet’s biggest assets, online communication poses a host of other problems. When Facebook invented the ‘Like’ option in the early days of social media, the intention was to add more love to the world – creators never dreamt that not getting enough ‘Likes’ would lead to the shocking stories of self-harm and suicide that have been making headlines all over the world, as teens succumb to the pressures of social media and cyberbullying.
Alerts and notifications have a similar effect. Our brains receive a rush of dopamine, and we reach a state of nervous anticipation. In the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail, the protagonist famously describes the ping of an email:
‘I turn on my computer. I wait impatiently as it connects. I go online, and my breath catches in my chest until I hear three little words: ‘You’ve got mail’.’
People today feel the same anticipation when checking out the number of followers, the number of likes, loves, reactions, and responses to messages – there’s a rush of adrenaline that people enjoy, induced by online social media activity.
But unfortunately, this need to be ‘Liked’ has escalated so much in the last 10-15 years that it has led to more anxiety and more self-doubt – especially among kids. The ‘Like’ culture implies that if you don’t get enough Likes, your actions, thoughts and pictures are ‘worthless’.
More time spent on screens has also led child psychologists to research how this is affecting kids’ sleep. Kids dream about what they watch on the screen – and if they’re dreaming of something disturbing, they can have distressing nightmares. The way in which images from the media penetrate into your subconscious is sometimes called “signing”, and is considered to be one of the reasons that children suffer from anxieties.
Additionally, studies have shown that screen time overload, combined with the sedentary lifestyle that staring at a screen offers, has resulted in kids having less resilience than they used to. Spending too much time in a 2-D environment gives kids less time to spend in a warm nurturing environment – which in turn affects how kids will approach problems or deal with struggles. They will miss out on building the life skills they need. Screen time also detracts from time spent doing physical activity, which is a huge factor in a person’s wellness, and mental well-being.
Building your Identity
If you are aged twenty and above, you may already have a more developed sense of self, having navigated your formative years without platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat.
But where younger kids are concerned, we are seeing their self-confidence tied into the ‘mirror effect’, or spotlight effect – you give of yourself on social media and watch how people react. There’s a lot of social pressure to have certain accounts or to try different hacks found online.
Ultimately, it’s not easy to say no – but you always pay a price. Challenges such as the Cinnamon Challenge, Skull Breaker Challenge and Benadryl Challenge have all resulted in serious injury. Teaching our kids to have the courage not to feel pressured into joining in with something that doesn’t feel safe is an important skill for life.
Social media, with its myriad of possibilities regarding fake profiles and names, is also affecting our ability to self-reflect – people can bully or troll anonymously, and hiding behind a screen means we don’t empathize with the pain we can inflict on others by simply typing a few words.
One of the challenges of parenting today is that it’s possible to have literally no idea what our children are watching – and they are able to access all kinds of content at an increasingly younger age. Let’s set the scene: Your teenager has a tablet – they access Netflix – they choose to watch Squid Games – their little brother climbs up onto the sofa next to them and watches alongside … it’s just so easy for kids to access all kinds of inappropriate content, right under our noses.
Squid Games in particular garnered much notoriety, with critics pointing out that the utter lack of human empathy is extremely disturbing. One could also add that violent video games, which many parents have long objected to, offer similarly worrying content. Studies amongst psychologists today show that too much exposure to this kind of content will affect our children’s ability to empathize and be sensitive.
Access to these violent and brutal plots and images messes with people’s heads – young, impressionable people in particular. Without the benefits of life experience, it’s frightening to think that the younger generation will become desensitized to violent content if they’re subjected to too much of it. It also blurs the lines between right and wrong, real and unreal, natural and unnatural.
Then there’s the added social pressure – even if your child isn’t inclined to watch this style of show, if their classmates are talking about it, they will want to join in the conversation. In the past, it was easier to control exposure. Families would have one screen at home if that – and that screen would be for the whole family. Children would ask their parents before watching television. If there were new releases, the cinemas offered ‘parental controls’ so parents would know whether or not movies were age-appropriate.
If a youngster wanted to access porn, he would need to invest time and energy to procure it: he needed to save his pocket money, go out, find a shop, buy a magazine, convince the shopkeeper he wasn’t under-age … It was a whole performance! Nowadays, it’s available at the click of a button.
Lack of morality?
We find ourselves questioning: Is it a lack of morality that’s driving more and more shocking material online? When huge conglomerates fail to safeguard users: is this the modern-day equivalent of ‘the banality of evil’, whereby entertainment and tech corporations will prioritize financial profit over the well-being of young users? Kids imitate without realizing they are doing it. We don’t even realize how much evil is out there – our challenge is to help eradicate a percentage of that from our kids’ lives.
Recently, due to pressure from governing bodies, we’ve seen more companies take responsibility and add parental controls to their platforms. For example, Instagram has launched parental controls, as has Facebook, after a whistleblower accused them of being more interested in profits than safety. However, while various companies are now trying to change at least one aspect for users e.g. location or screen time, the FamilyKeeper parental control app aims to encompass all aspects, in order to help combat social bullying, mental health issues and online dangers.
Why do your kids need YOU?
The frontal part of the brain starts to develop around nine years old and finishes around the age of twenty-five. During this time, we learn, we perceive, we’re impressionable, and we’re engaged.
A parental control app such as FamilyKeeper gives parents time to teach their children how to live in this world. It gives them values from a young age. Even if as a teen they decide they don’t want you to have parental access, you’ll have started them off with the right tools in life.
Parental control apps also help parents to understand their kids – what do your kids like to watch, to play, to listen to? Screens have become the ultimate toy – toy companies just can’t compete anymore with the allure of a screen.
To that end, as parents we may need to adopt an ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ policy. We may not be able to rid the world of screens, but we can certainly make the experience of using them a safer one. An app like FamilyKeeper opens the shutters – it keeps the lines of communication open between parent and child.