Why Parents Should Pay Attention to Children’s Digital Consumption

Apply the same attention to children’s diets: curb excess and mind quality

In 2015, a report by Common Sense Media found that teenagers are spending an average of nine hours per day on social media. It also found that tweens – aged between eight and twelve years old – averaged six hours per day. Now, two years later, a new report by Common Sense Media shows that for children eight years and younger, the amount of time spent on digital media has tripled from 15 minutes a day in 2013 to 48 minutes per day in 2017. With school, extracurricular activities, family time, and sleep, it’s hard to even fathom how kids are finding enough hours in the day for this amount of digital media consumption.

In light of these statistics, researchers have begun to ask the question, “how is this affecting children?” What they’ve found is that too much digital media use, just like eating too much junk food, can have adverse effects.

For example, recent studies have found that even the mere presence of a digital device (such as a smartphone) can suck concentration and disrupt cognitive function whether the device is on or off. For example, if a child is taking a test and their smartphone is turned on airplane mode and tucked away in their backpack below their desk, their concentration and cognitive function may still be affected by its proximity. While the study did not measure test scores among school children with smartphones present, we can assume that disrupted attention and cognitive function most likely has a negative effect on test scores and schoolwork in general.

Another study, conducted at Stanford University, tested media multitasking. Media multitasking has widely been believed to be a practical (and maybe even a beneficial) skill because many of us tend to move quickly between media; for example, writing a report for work, answering a chat from a coworker, and handling a sales call. This idea of media multitasking as a strengthening skill is mirrored by children and teens, many of who believe that watching TV, texting, or interacting with social media has no effect on their ability to focus and do well on their homework. However, the study found that heavy media multitaskers had a much higher difficulty allocating their attention to specific tasks, switching tasks, and identifying key elements between tasks.

While the cognitive and attention aspects of media use are certainly worthy of consideration, one of the biggest concerns about children and teens’ well-being regarding social media consumption has to do with their mental state. A recent study conducted by economists at the University of Sheffield found that social media use among children makes them less happy in nearly all aspects of their lives. Even spending just one hour a day on social media has the chance of reducing a child’s feeling of overall happiness in the areas of schoolwork, the school they attend, their appearance, their family, and their life in general by 14%. However, they did find that social media tends to make children, on average, feel happier about their friendships.

But with all we know now about the adverse effects of digital media use among children and teens, there comes an obligation to do something about it. Part of that obligation, according to England’s Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, should belong to the social media companies themselves. After all, social media is designed to capture attention and ensure that users are engaging with these networks as much as possible. While this may be beneficial for social media networks, it is not necessarily beneficial for the people who are using them.

In an article in The Guardian, Longfield gave an example of the Snapstreak feature on Snapchat to demonstrate the absorbing nature of social media platforms. Snapchat users can create a “streak” when they share photos between friends for three consecutive days. If one person in the streak misses their turn, the streak is destroyed. This creates a kind of social pressure to continue interacting with the app. While it can be fun for friends, it can also be argued that the feature is inconsiderate of users’ time.

But Longfield also stresses that it is not only the responsibility of the social media networks to protect children from digital media overuse; parents must also be proactive in helping their children develop healthy habits when it comes to social media, just like they should be proactive in outlining a healthy diet for their children.

Modeling the 5-a-day campaign for healthy eating in England, which provides guidelines for balanced meals, Longfield has recently initiated a digital 5-a-day campaign that seeks to help parents teach their children and teenagers how to have a healthy online presence, balanced with a healthy life offline as well. These are the five proposed tenets:

1. Connect: Message, have fun and play with friends and family both online and offline.
2. Be active: Take some time off and get active – movement helps boost emotional well-being.
3. Get creative: Don’t just browse the internet but use digital tools to create content, to build new skills and discover new passions.
4. Give to others: Be positive online, report bad content and help others to balance their own 5-a-day.
5. Be mindful: If time online is causing stress or tiredness then take some time off and ask for help when you need it.

With the digital 5-a-day campaign, Longfield argues that children should not be entirely blocked from social media, as it is a modern fact of life. Instead, it should be moderated and used reasonably to have a well-rounded digital and non-digital social experience. To help moderate digital media consumption, parents can take advantage of parental controls to put limits on which sites their children can view, what features they can use, and when they can or cannot be online.

Longfield also suggests that parents talk to their children about the strategies that social media networks use to keep them engaged and the effects that digital media overuse can have on their development. This gives children the tools to navigate their own lives and make informed decisions.

Overall, it’s important to keep in mind that, even though we live in a world surrounded by digital media, it’s not impossible for children and teens to maintain a healthy relationship with social media and keep a balance between their offline and online life.

This post was featured first in Saferize Blog.