Adolescent consumption of digital technology and its impact on brain, cognitive, and social-emotional development has increasingly come under the spotlight. Research on media and tech. effects on our teens have demonstrated that their engagement with the internet, online social platforms, digital media and gaming can have both positive and negative outcomes academically, socially and emotionally.
Our teens’ brains are wired to prioritise social connections and emotions over rational thinking. In the Digital World, our Tweens and Teens do exactly this through online gaming and social media communication-uploading content to Tik Tok, Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, and other media platforms. They do so without forethought, immediately and impulsively for instant gratification and affirmation, seeking “celebrity” status through the number of followers and likes.
This makes it challenging for our teens to control their impulses, increasing the likelihood of prioritising immediate rewards or gratification over long-term consequences. The combination of brain development, social pressures, and emotional prioritisation during adolescence can make it challenging for teens to think before posting digital content.
We know that the prefrontal lobe and the concurrent executive skills, including thinking through consequences, take 24 years to mature, as such, guidance and support from trusted adults and parents is so critical.
Some of the serious challenges for our teens are obvious while the negative outcomes are not always immediately visible. Social media addiction and cyberbullying are just two examples. Sending nude selfies, racist comments, and misogynistic and other inappropriate content not only potentially invites criminal sanction but has long-lasting implications, compromises our children, our family and others and can have significant social and emotional repercussions for those posting and viewing such material.
Some of the statistics are disturbing, and some are greatly alarming:
In a 2022 global survey, 31 percent of 8-year-olds owned a smartphone, nearly tripling from 2015. This is disturbing (Statista, Published October 14, 2022) That 63% of teens have unfettered access to social media and the internet is alarming. It is equally alarming that nearly half of teens aged 13-17 have been bullied or harassed online.
Among 12-17 year-olds, approximately half have seen pornography. Almost 15% of adolescents had sent a sext and 25% had received a sext. Alarmingly children as young as 9 have seen sext messages.(Pew Research, December 15, 2022). Reports of online enticement, including sextortion, increased by 265% from 2018 to 2021, globally.
Minors are regularly approached online by someone they believe is attempting to “befriend and manipulate” them. 40% have said they have been approached online by someone they believe was attempting “to befriend and manipulate” them, with 50% of teen girls saying they have experienced this. (Thorn: Online Grooming: Examining risky encounters amid everyday digital socialization, April 2022)
Teens that have visited websites that encourage self-harm or suicide have reported an increase in thoughts about killing themselves and/or hurting themselves.
IS THERE AN UPSIDE TO ALL OF THIS?
The online world can provide a space for teens to connect and interact with others, to find support and resources online, to stay informed about mental health issues and to find a sense of community. It can also provide a platform for teens to explore their identities, express their creativity, and discover new interests and passions. Online peer communication via social media can enhance friendship quality, perception of social support, and connectedness. Online community connections can help relieve stress and anxiety during periods of adversity and there is plenty of research that indicates that gaming can be a positive activity that promotes cognitive skills involving impulse control and working memory, enhanced visual perception, improved ability to switch between tasks, and better information processing. But not when unmediated and unsupervised by an adult that sets limits and helps regulate game time.
The relationship between digital engagement and well-being among adolescents appears to vary by individual differences and the quantity and quality of digital media use. However, the availability of trusted adults to assist in mediating adolescent digital and social media engagement is a significant moderating factor.
The Bottom Line is that unmediated and unmonitored online spaces for our teens can be like the Badlands- a barbarous, cruel, and sometimes savage place. There are very few rules, no real way to moderate what is going on, and any evidence of inappropriate, cruel, and demeaning behaviour can be hidden from parents and other adults. Until legislation and the threat of sanction compels social media platforms to regulate and moderate content and to take responsibility for creating safer and regulated online spaces, the responsibility falls fully to us as parents and educators to do so.
Pupil online safety is a full-time issue. Parent involvement in supervising tweens and teens’ digital engagement is crucial, as challenging as it can be. Knowing what our children are posting, having conversations about social media and responsible publishing of content on a regular basis at home, and checking in with our children regularly play an important role in our children’s online safety and digital well-being.
Setting guidelines and boundaries for social media use, including how much time our teens should spend on it, what content is appropriate to post, and who they should connect with. It’s important to enforce these guidelines consistently and to adjust them as needed.
As importantly we need to model healthy social media use. Set a good example. This means being mindful of our own social media use, setting limits on our own screen time, and being respectful and kind online.
Stay engaged and communicate: Keep an open and ongoing dialogue with our teens about social media use. Ask them about their experiences, challenges, and concerns, and be willing to listen and offer support when needed. By staying engaged and communicating regularly, we can help our teens better manage social media and make the most of its benefits while minimising its risks.
As parents, we need to use an integrated and effective framework for managing digital citizenship at home in partnership with our school. As always, we invite you to engage in conversation with us to manage this vexing challenge to the well-being of our children.
SYDNEY SAMAKOSKY AMANDA VARKEL
Systemic Head of Counselling Systemic Head of Educational Support
Supporting Emotional and Educational Development