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Anti-Social Networking: How do texting and social media affect our children? A panel discussion by CSC clinicians at the Nightingale-Bamford School

by Yamalis Diaz, PhD, Lori Evans, PhD and Richard Gallagher, PhD

Boys texting on cell phones

"Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers."

"It has become exceedingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity."  
-Albert Einstein

Kids' behavior and technology: Neither is a wholly new set of conundrums, but the increasing availability of social media makes this an important time to talk about them both.

Take a sheet of paper. Crumple it up. Now try to smooth it back out again. The wrinkles won't ever completely come out, will they?

Think of this as a metaphor for information we post about ourselves on social networking sites; once it's there, it's very hard if not impossible to remove. And it's about as easy to share material this way—even very personal material—as it is to crumple a sheet of paper.

This is just one of many reasons that parents need to be aware and involved in their children's social media lives. The NYU Child Study Center's Yamalis Diaz, Ph.D., Lori Evans, Ph.D., and Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., gave a panel discussion cosponsored by Parents In Action NYC at the Nightingale-Bamford School on November 14, 2011. The topic was "Anti-Social Networking: How do texting and social media affect our children's development?"

Below is an overview of the material presented in their talk. An edited transcipt of the question-and-answer portion of the talk is also available.

Kids are growing up amid a sea of electronic media. It's important for parents to consider how this may impact social life, development, academics, and adjustment, and how parents can serve as a buffer from some of the potential negative consequences. 

How much are kids using media?

  • The total amount of media use by youth ages 8 to 18 averages 6-plus hours a day—more than any other activity.
  • The amount of use has increased significantly, up from 4-plus hours in the last five years.
  • Eighty percent of adolescents possess at least one form of media access.
  • There is extensive multi-tasking associated with media use (instant messaging while doing homework and listening to music on an mp3 player, for example).
  • Of particular concern is the amount of TV kids consume. From 2004 to 2009, television and video use averaged three to five hours per day, peaking between the ages of 11 and 14, a crucial period for kids' social development.
  • Fifty-four percent of teens send text messages, and one third of teens send more than 100 text messages per day.
  • One third talk face-to-face with friends, around the same percentage that talk on cell phones (38 percent) and land lines (30 percent).
  • Twenty-four percent communicate with friends via instant messages.
  • Twenty-five percent contact friends via social networking sites.
  • Eleven percent use e-mail.

How does media use affect kids' development?

Because texting, instant messaging, and social networking sites like Facebook are still comparatively new, research is not really available yet on their long-term effects. But we can extrapolate a certain amount from research on the effects of TV and video games on children's development.

  • Among preschoolers, more time spent watching TV has been shown to have a negative impact on attention, academic performance, and adjustment in elementary school and middle school.
  • Increases in media use are associated with reduced grades; only 23 percent of "light" users averaged C's or worse, as compared with 47 percent of "heavy" users.
  • Kids who see more TV learn to read later and slower.

Violent and sexual content, in both TV and video games, bring their own concerns. Increased exposure to violence has been proven to result in:

  • More aggressive behavior
  • More aggressive thoughts
  • More angry feelings
  • Less empathy
  • Fewer helping behaviors
  • Increases in fear

Furthermore, this content tends to be:

  • Unrealistic: in 73 percent of instances there is no punishment, and only 16 percent of programs show any negative consequences to violent behavior.
  • Frequent in children's programming. Even when kids are watching "family friendly" shows like "Sponge Bob," there is an average 25 acts of violence per TV-viewing session.

Sexualized content, which appears frequently in certain video games and often includes sexualized violence, is associated with:

  • Poor attitudes towards women
  • An increase in rape myth acceptance–"They asked for it."
  • Increases in violence against women

In terms of how this information might extend to the use of other social media:

  • Participation for long periods of time can have a negative effect on basic cognitive processes.
  • Overuse can have a negative impact on attention skills.
  • The content of the information can have an effect on emotions and behavior.

Furthermore, the actions that are discussed, encouraged, and practiced in interactive media are likely to become stronger and more frequent. If kids practice violent interactions, they are likely to get better at them; the U.S. Armed Forces uses video games as part of training for combat.

A new way to meet an age-old need

Humans have always looked for ways to connect with others through shared interests and experiences. In this sense, social media are simply new tools for behavior humans have engaged in, quite possibly, since there have been humans.

Both the age-old and modern versions all contain opportunities for pro-social, neutral, and anti-social interactions. Here are a few examples, all possible through both face-to-face and social media interactions:

  • Compliments
  • Exchange of information
  • Playful and fun interactions
  • Hanging out
  • Commenting
  • Spreading rumors
  • Teasing
  • Threatening or bullying

However, there are a few key differences:

In social media interactions, there is more potential for contact with people parents don't know. It used to be that other kids called on the phone, or came knocking at the door, and so parents had a much higher chance of being aware of who their kids were interacting with. Not so with someone sending a text message, a friend request on Facebook, or other players in a "massively multiplayer" online game.

These interactions happen during more hours of the day. Again, kids aren't likely to see friends face-to-face, or even get phone calls, at midnight on a Tuesday. But many teens get text messages from their friends at this hour. Some teens send and receive hundreds of texts after 11 p.m.

Just as parents are more unlikely to know with whom kids are interacting, they're less likely to know when kids are chatting online or texting with friends at all. The personal and portable nature of many social media devices—cell phones, laptops—creates a huge potential for social media use away from parental eyes and supervision. Parents often don't know whether a teen up in her bedroom is doing her math homework, having a fight with her boyfriend, or watching something inappropriate for her age on YouTube.

Social media has the potential for positive social consequences:

  • For shy children, social media can actually enhance their ability to connect with others and form positive relationships with peers.
  • Social media have the potential to allow all children to interact with more thought. It's much harder to stop and think before responding to a person standing in front of you than to take some time before you reply to a text or Facebook message.

There are also a host of potential negative consequences:

  • Information can spread extremely quickly. This can be good, if a piece of news needs to be disseminated quickly throughout a school community, for example, or bad, if what is being spread is a piece of harmful gossip or an inappropriate photo. 
  • Because these activities lend themselves to multitasking, they bring with them a loss of concentration. There is no such thing as truly effective multitasking. Your child won't do as good a job studying for a test if they are also sending text messages or chatting with friends online.
  • More time on social media means less time on other activities, including academics.
  • The prevalence of social media means that kids (and adults) spend less time reading all types of written materials, including books, magazines, and newspapers.
  • Social media make it very easy to impulsively share private information.
  • Kids can't always escape negative interactions. Most won't be able to turn off the cell phone, even if they're getting text messages that are upsetting or even harassing in some way.

Social media and identity formation in the early teen years

In terms of the potential impact on identity formation, Dr. Gallagher believes that young teenagers and preteens are the most vulnerable to negative consequences of social media. While children get their sense of identity mainly from parents and, to a lesser extent, teachers, preteens begin to rely much more heavily on their peers. Kids this age report feeling like they're on a stage, where everyone is watching and judging them all the time, and to a large degree, that perception is accurate at this phase of development. Preteens watch each other very critically, and tend to be very sensitive and attuned to how others view them. So if a child does something embarrassing and it's spread via Facebook to everyone in his school, it could potentially have a big impact on his self concept and self esteem.

Gossip and comments spread via Facebook are inherently different from comments made face-to-face. While the latter are more immediate and thus might seem to have a greater potential impact on kids, face-to-face comments are only heard by those present. The process of spreading them by word of mouth occurs much more slowly. When a comment or piece of gossip is spread on Facebook or via a mass text message, its impact is both exponentially faster and potentially far more widespread. This digital gossip is also notoriously difficult to fully remove from the Web once it's online.

Young teens may also have trouble taking appropriate breaks from their cell phones and Facebook, in a seemingly all-consuming desire to know what peers are thinking and saying about them at every moment. In these ways, social media can place added stress on kids' process of identity formation during these critical years. Would you want your 8th grade school photo to be recorded for posterity on the Internet, to say nothing of your friends' reactions to it? That is the world these kids are growing up in.

Bullying peaks during the middle school years, and online bullying carries its own set of heightened risks and considerations.

  • Kids tend to be more likely to engage in bullying over the Web because it's harder to have empathy for your victim when you're not face-to-face with him or her.
  • In online bullying, there is generally no audience who might rein in a bully by saying, "Hey, lay off." Others aren't aware of the bullying comment or action until after it has been posted for all to see.
  • Adults can't overhear or witness what's happening when the perpetrator is alone in his or her room in front of a computer.

Given all this, parents need to keep a close eye on kids' use of social media during the early teen years in particular. Parents often give kids way too much privacy and freedom in this regard, in the opinion of our panel of experts. A Facebook account or personal cell phone is not an inalienable right. Parents have a responsibility to monitor children's access, including passwords, and their interactions (more on this in the coming sections on What Parents Can Do).

Potential impact of social media on psycho-social development:

  • A potential for greater anxiety
  • Increases in depression
  • Takes time and energy away from other things, including face-to-face interactions, physical activity, play (for younger children), academics, and family time.
  • Can create a compulsive need for "vigilance"—to keep checking on comments being made about you.
  • Can lead to impulsive reactions in order to "correct" impressions or comments being circulated online.

Who is most vulnerable:

  • Children who are socially awkward, impulsive or have other behavior issues
  • Children with a tendency toward anxiety or depression
  • Children who don't fit in well with their particular subgroup

What parents can do

There are a number of things parents can and should do to stave off potential negative consequences of social media.

  • Learn more about social media, either from your children (they are digital natives, we are digital immigrants) or by taking a class. 
  • Except in extreme circumstances, try to find a way to allow your child to participate in social media. If they say they'll be left out socially if you restrict their access altogether, they're probably right.
  • Join your child's social networks and "friend" them. While it may increase parent-child conflict, you need to know the substance of what your child is saying and doing on these sites and confront them about inappropriate behavior. Thirty-nine percent of parents report having friended their teen on a social networking site.
  • Teach kids to stop and really think before responding to text messages or comments made on social media.
  • Set limits. Use software that turns the computer off after a certain number of hours and/or tracks online activity.
  • Get your children's passwords. Again, online privacy from parents is not an inalienable right. A Facebook page is not a diary, kept under the bed under lock and key. If friends and friends-of-friends can see it, Mom and Dad need to be able to as well.
  • Don't let kids charge phones or laptops in their bedrooms, and don't let them have these devices in their rooms overnight. Your teen should not be on Facebook or replying to text messages instead of sleeping.
  • If possible, limit the presence of cell phones and computers in kids' bedrooms during all hours of the day. Find a place in your home that is quiet enough for homework, but still public.
  • Model good behavior. If you are checking your BlackBerry or iPhone at the dinner table or on family vacations, how can you expect your children to unplug? Make time for family time. Surf the Web together, and share other activities as well.
  • If kids go a day (or several) without being online, their world will not come to an end (that goes for you, too).
  • Especially for younger kids, play (the kind that doesn't involve computers) is important. Video games are among the most popular activities when boys get together, and Facebook and other social networking sites are popular with girls. Force kids to play outside or engage in other types of activities if necessary: "You can play the video game after you've played outside for half an hour."
  • Talk with kids about what is and isn't appropriate to post online. There is definitely such a thing as "oversharing"! Just because kids' friends are posting certain photos or information doesn't mean it's a good idea.
  • Keep social networking in its place. Make sure your kids eat well, sleep well, and exercise.Teach and model social skills and empathy.
  • Know the content your child is consuming. Watch the YouTube videos, look at their friends' Facebook page if you have access, play the video games they play.
  • Discuss content viewed online (and this goes for TV, video games, movies, music videos, etc.). Does it agree with your values? Is it accurate and/or realistic? How do you think it may affect the behavior and emotions of people who see it?
  • Confront your kids about Facebook or other social media posts you feel are inappropriate, from them or their friends.
  • Remind kids not to post photos or content that could help strangers find them in the real world, such as photos in school uniforms or displaying school names or logos. Make sure your child limits access to Facebook pages and other social media to people your child specifically accepts as "friends," and tell them not to accept friend requests from strangers.

When to be concerned about your child's social media habits:

  • If a child is overly preoccupied with what is being said online, or with getting back online when they're away from their computer or smart phone.
  • If they need to be online for longer and longer periods of time.
  • If they are unable to cut back on time online (or text messaging).
  • If they get irritable, restless or anxious ("withdrawal" symptoms) when they cannot be online.
  • If they are experiencing impairment in other areas of life due to the time they spend using social media.
  • If they are concealing their computer or phone use.
  • If they seem to be going online to escape from real world interactions.

Different children, different concerns:

  • With aggressive children, encourage them to make positive comments online.
  • With anxious children, discourage them from using cell phones to be in constant touch. Except in cases of real emergency, set limits about the number of calls or texts per day.
  • With distant children, encourage staying in closer touch and checking in more regularly.
  • With impulsive children, encourage them to think before they respond to social media communications.
  • With socially awkward children, provide supervision and encourage reaching out to other kids.

In the case of harmful or negative online interactions:

  • Let your child know to always inform an adult.
  • Even if your child has been targeted, tell him or her not to retaliate. Adults will handle the problem.
  • Talk with them about harsh behavior or upsetting images or words they witness online.
  • Encourage them to say or do something in response to bullying. It's important to remember that bystanders suffer almost the same degree of negative emotions from witnessing instances of bullying as the bullies themselves.Set reasonable rules for reviewing your child's social media use. Restrict use if they aren't able to use social media responsibly.

Issues to consider:

  • How much time should you let your child spend online, watching TV, or playing video games?
  • Do they interact with people you don't know?
  • Do they have regular unsupervised access to a computer or smart phone, where you have no way to monitor their interactions?
  • Do you serve as a filter and interpreter for the material your child views online and their social media sites? TV? Video games?
  • Do you decide what games your child is allowed to play or what content they're allowed to view?

Steps to Consider:

  • Purchasing software that lets you decide when the computer shuts down.
  • Restricting access to certain online content.
  • If you and your child have difficulties resolving issues surrounding social media use on your own, consider consulting with a mental health professional.