It is undeniable that in today’s world, technology is practically everywhere. From the phones in people’s pockets to smart fridges, innovation has made its way into the lives of millions over the past few decades, making it difficult to imagine life without it. Today, a person can contact someone on the other side of the globe and get an answer almost instantly, something that was unimaginable less than a century ago. However, with life-changing so rapidly, there is a cause for debate – should children be raised with exposure and access to social media such as Facebook, Youtube, Snapchat, Instagram, and so on? Although there are several benefits to social media use, there is also a lot of dangers that parents and care authorities should be aware of when giving their children access to the internet. Since technology has advanced immensely over the past few decades, it is difficult to predict the long-term effects social media will have on children growing up surrounded by it.
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Many social media platforms are used by children and adolescents today, with many having mobile apps to facilitate everyday use. Some of this software consist mainly of instant messaging, such as KiK or WeChat. Others, on the other hand, are multimedia platforms, offering their users access to ‘memes,’ news, as well as various posts and opinions by other members. While several social media features, when used correctly, can be extremely beneficial to the users, they also pose a danger to the especially vulnerable and easily influenced groups, such as children and adolescents. According to BBC, Facebook owns as many as four of this decade’s most popular social media platforms – Facebook itself, Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram (Shead). This not only means that the amount of data that can be collected about an individual is beyond understanding but that the content the users are exposed to is most likely one-sided. Furthermore, the commercial nature of these companies means that many tactics are employed to make the apps as addictive as possible.
Possible Benefits of Children and Adolescents Using Social Media
Before speaking about the dangers of social media platforms, especially relevant for children and adolescents, it is vital to mention some of the positive features of social media. As mentioned above, some of the most popular and most downloaded apps over the past decade have been social media and communication platforms, with Snapchat coming in fifth place and Skype sixth (Shead). As of May 2021, there are currently 2.85 billion active users registered on Facebook, the biggest social media platform of the decade (Tankovska). Therefore, there are many opportunities for people worldwide to not only stay in touch with their existing friends and relatives but to make new connections with people they would not have met otherwise. According to Rosenfeld, as of 2017, 39% of American heterosexual adults met their partners online, which means that social media might be making people less lonely (qtd. in Shashkevich).
Furthermore, social media is often a way for people to stay informed of current events. It might be someone one follows on the platform posting their opinion on some incident, or a popular social movement, such as with the informative posts during the BLM protests or the Israel-Palestine conflict. Nevertheless, having access to information on social media might encourage someone to research the topic further, potentially educating them or helping them form an opinion on a political matter. Moreover, social media makes it very easy to share and discuss knowledge, further facilitating education (Akram 350). Children and adolescents working towards group projects might also find it easier to use social media to communicate.
Dangers of Social Media for Children and Adolescents
One of the most prominent and discussed online hazards is the potential communication with dangerous strangers such as perverts and scammers. Children and adolescents might be more susceptible to online scams, as well as catfishing – the act of pretending to be someone else online. This can be dangerous for many reasons, starting from monetary scamming and ending with potential physical interaction with a pervert or a malicious individual.
Firstly, it is incredibly easy today to fall victim to fraudulent behavior on the internet. Scammers use a variety of tactics, from bait-click links that lead to a website with a virus to naively supplying personal information to someone that pretends to be someone else. Children and adolescents that have not before encountered such behavior might be more vulnerable to it. They might also feel ashamed about falling victim to such schemes and not share their experience with their peers or family.
Secondly, there is the potentially even scarier scenario of the child meeting someone on the internet and meeting up with them only to find out they are not who they said they were. Depending on the intentions of the catfish, the child or adolescent can be in danger of getting sexually assaulted or potentially murdered. Therefore, it is essential for the younger users of the internet to be aware of these possibilities and to not be too trusting with strangers.
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Interference with Social Life
Although social media is often used by people of all ages to connect and communicate with others, it often leads to antisocial behavior in real life. Real-life interactions require several social skills, including being able to pick up on social cues and body language (Capozzi and Ristic 1). However, using social media as the primary form of communication does not let these social skills develop. Texting, although convenient for instant interaction with those that are not present physically, does not allow for a personal connection that is made during a real-life conversation. For adults that have likely spent their whole lives living in a society, the occasional texting should not bring a lot of trouble. However, for children and adolescents, replacing real-life communication with online texting might pose a great developmental risk if their social and relational skills are prevented from developing. Moreover, the young children that are used to abbreviating and constantly using slang online might start to rely on this simplified language in real life (Akram 351).
Exposure to Sexual or Explicit Content
Furthermore, it is undeniable that there is a lot of explicit content on the internet that impressionable individuals, especially children, and adolescents. From pornography websites and explicit ads to posts and comments that include hateful language and imagery, there are many ways in which young people might be vulnerable. If the internet and social media use is not supervised, the young individuals might end up having access to inappropriate content that will shock or traumatize them.
Worsened Mental Health
Last but not least, mental health has been a prominent issue over the past few years, with social media often having an incredibly negative effect on users of all ages. According to Sedgwick et al., there is a strong correlation between heavy social media use and suicide attempts in adolescents under 19 years old (1). This is unsurprising since there are several factors present on social media that might negatively affect mental health.
Firstly, direct cyber-bullying, online harassment, which can be anything from malicious comments to blackmail, is facilitated by the perceived anonymity and lack of consequences online. According to Akram, a large part of young people have at one point fallen victim to this kind of harassment (352). One of the reasons this kind of bullying might be even more harmful than traditional in-person bullying is the perceived lack of a safe space. Since social media attacks can be made from anywhere and at any time, the victim might feel like they have no escape from the harassment.
Secondly, the child’s or adolescent’s self-perception might be affected negatively by constantly comparing oneself to the online personas of others. Platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, which are majorly picture and video-based, offer an idealized view on celebrities’ and influencers’ lives. The heavily edited photographs and videos, as well as the selective nature of the posts that strive to portray a romanticized version rather than a real person, might lead someone to believe in their inferiority. This can be detrimental to a person’s mental health as they would try to adhere to impossible standards that they see every day, possibly leading to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health issues.
Conclusion and Potential Preventive Measures
Parents and parental figures should be more aware of the dangers that social media posts for their children and be more in control of what they are exposed to. While it is impossible to shield children and adolescents from everything harmful, it is possible to raise awareness in them to not put themselves in potentially hurtful situations. It is also possible to limit the time the adolescent or child spends online, which is best done with soft power rather than hard power. This would mean that instead of banning certain behaviors, the parents would explain the dangers to their offspring, allowing them to make the correct choices themselves. Since there are many benefits to social media as well as drawbacks, limited use can be seen as very helpful to the lives of the forming adults. Overall, the policies parental authorities choose to exert on those dependent on them should be constructed with great care to not do more harm than good to the forming adults.
Akram, Waseem. “A Study on Positive and Negative Effects of Social Media on Society.” International Journal of Computer Sciences and Engineering, vol. 5, no. 10, 2018, pp. 347-354.
Capozzi, Francesca, and Jelena Ristic. “How Attention Gates Social Interaction.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 1426, no. 1, 2018.
Sedgwick, Rosemary et al. “Social Media, Internet Use and Suicide Attempts in Adolescents.” Current Opinion in Psychiatry, vol. 32, no. 6, 2019, pp. 534-541.
Shashkevich, Alex. “Meeting Online Has Become the Most Popular Way U.S. Couples Connect, Stanford Sociologist Finds.” Stanford News, 2019, Web.
Shead, Sam. “Facebook Owns the Four Most Downloaded Apps of the Decade.” BBC, 2019, Web.
Tankovska, H. “Number of Monthly Active Facebook Users Worldwide as of 1st Quarter 2021.” Statista, 2021, Web.