Mal Fletcher
Children and Social Media Don't Mix

“Freedom,” said Ronald Reagan, “is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

This applies not simply to freedom of belief or expression; it is in many ways true of freedom from anxiety. 

Yet, according to one of the leading children’s charities in Britain, a rising number of pre-teens are experiencing symptoms of anxiety.

The NSPCC’s Childline service announced this week that it counselled 11,706 young people for anxiety in 2015-16. This represented a rise of 35 percent on the number of children counselled for anxiety in 2014-15.

Children as young as eight years old are contacting the charity, citing a range of issues that cause them great concern. Those issues are no longer restricted to family concerns, or problems at school.

They include Brexit, the US election and the war in Syria – not the sorts of things you’d expect pre-teens to grapple with on any deeply emotional level.

Of course, a rise in levels of child anxiety might be expected if worry is to some degree a learned human response.

After all, recent surveys have suggested that indicators of depression or anxiety are on the rise within the adult population. Experts cite such likely contributing factors as work and education pressures, isolation as a result of the rise of ‘always connected’ social media, and financial pressures.

Doubtless, a range of concerns may be passed virally from parents to children, as a consequence of overheard conversations and the like. Yet even when parents do their very best to shield children, anxiety levels often still rise.

No small reason for this is the growing engagement of very young children with digital gadgets.

Social media represent a prime conduit for what children hear about global issues. Of course, technology is less to blame for the world’s ills than human choices as to how we use technology. Social media has contributed much to our lives, allowing us to collaborate and communicate in ways that would have seemed scarcely imaginable a generation ago.

That said, social media has also opened the minds and hearts of children to new forms of bullying. It has also provided an often unfiltered pathway into the grimier side of life; the world of complex and often depressing human problems which even adults – and experts – struggle to understand.

Social media seem to carry with them a form of viral negativity. A number of international studies have reflected on the negative impact of regular social media use - even the non-bullying kind - on levels of mild depression in adults.

One such study, conducted by Stony Brook University in New York, involved 4000 participants who were active social media users.

It found that people who have negative interactions via social networking were more likely to be depressed. This finding applied to both light and heavy users of social platforms.

In a 2015 Danish study, a sample group was divided into two branches. At the commencement of the study, all participants assigned themselves a score in terms of personal happiness, based on several criteria.

Members of one group were then asked to carry on with their normal use of Facebook during the following week. Members of the second group were asked to refrain.

At the end of that week, participants rated themselves on life satisfaction again. Their ratings were then compared to those they’d assigned themselves at the start.

Researchers found that people who withdrew from Facebook engagement showed a marked increase in their levels of happiness. Those who continued using social media saw, at best, only a marginal increase.

Now, asking people to rate themselves on happiness may seem a little too glossy-magazine to rank as serious research. However, this is exactly how such studies are carried out. 

These studies are, after all, dealing with the subjective. Happiness cannot be measured in a beaker, but it is still very real and most people are well equipped to report whether they feel happier today than they did last week.

Meik Wiking, the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute which conducted the Danish study, attributed some of the change to Facebook’s tendency to distort perceptions of reality.

“We take in to account how we’re doing in life through comparisons to everyone else,” he said. “Since most people only post positive things on Facebook, that gives us a very biased perception of reality.” 

“If we are constantly exposed to great news, we risk evaluating our own lives as less good.”

“The constant flow of great news we see on Facebook only represents the top 10 per cent of things that happen to other people. It shouldn’t be used as the background for evaluating our own lives.”

Social media – let’s not limit this to Facebook – also have other effects on our minds and moods.

A leading British psychiatrist claimed last year that children as young as five are developing borderline autistic-like behaviour, because of digital engagement. A growing use of tablets and other interactive screen devices has diminished their capacity to read subtle facial signals present in normal human conversation.  

Meanwhile, the impact of online bullying and trolling have revealed that negative emotions expressed online are at least as impacting as those shared face-to-face. In fact, their impact may be greater because they lack the context provided by facial signals, tones of voice and so on. 

It’s instructive to look at the recent popularity of the emoticon. This little hieroglyphic device didn’t exist in its present form when social media first invaded the Cloud. Now, many adults who once claimed that this was all just kids’ stuff have become artisans in the sending of pictographic messages.

Let’s consider for a moment why we feel the need of emojis. What purpose do they serve? Surely they’re just a blunt instrument for people who’re too lazy to find the right form of words, with all their inbuilt specificity.

Actually, emoticons offer much more than a cheap shorthand alternative to words. They are important because in the age of text-driven, remote social media, we need a way to express the emotion we intend. This is something language alone doesn’t always allow – especially if we’re limited to a mere 140 characters.

Emojis have become a convenient substitute for the waving of a hand, the raising of an eyebrow or the suggestion of a smile or frown. 

They’re the only way we can raise or lower our voices to make or respond to a point, when our faces aren’t seen and our voices aren’t heard.

As adults, we have felt the negative impact of social media as an often emotionless - or at least emotionally confusing - form of communication. We’ve tried to invent new ways around it. 

None of us enjoys being misunderstood. Nor do we care to feel threatened by the words of others, who may or may not intend their messages to be understood as we’re interpreting them.

If the emotional impact of using social media is significant for adults, how much more so is it likely to be among children?

The technology and specific platforms are not the problem; our engagement with them is. We need to discipline the digital in our own lives and help children learn that the digital is something that should serve but not define them. 

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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