Social media and the internet have the potential to be beneficial to the development of young people

Written by Marc Atherton, Psychologist & Behavioural Scientist (MSc CPsychol CSci)

There is a controversy in academic circles as to whether ‘internet and social media addiction’ is a thing unto itself or a chimera built on existing behavioural addiction models (e.g. gambling).

Whilst academics discuss and debate the finer points of the construct parents are coping with children and young teenagers who live their lives on mobile devices to the detriment of social, family and educational progress.

Whether defined as an ‘addiction’ or a dysfunctional behavioural pattern the truth is that mobile social media, gaming and amusing videos are driving a wedge of misunderstanding and friction between the generations.

Swipe Left For Addiction exists to provide a focus for countering the worst excesses of the negative side of the social media that surrounds the lives of our children and young teenagers. We know what the problems are – they have been widely discussed and there are things that can be done (more in a later article) to mitigate the worst aspects of internet and social media addiction as it is understood and experienced by parents across the country.

Things however are not all bad – the evidence is that the internet and social media can be beneficial to the social, cognitive and emotional development of children and young teenagers if handled correctly. Like most other things in life a little can do you good, too much can be harmful.

The key issue then is deciding how much is enough or too much and then creating a situation where the use that children and young teenagers make of the internet and social media for recreational purposes is in balance with other aspects of their lives.

Social media companies use sophisticated techniques based on the science of motivational and neurological psychology to ‘encourage’ users to stay on their platform waiting for the next bit of positive feedback to arrive. Parents can think of it as a awesomely effective ‘gold-star’ reward system permanently in the palm of the hand.

Looking at how the major social media platforms operate, what we see is a random variable behaviour reinforcement schedule – the most powerful of all the techniques for changing behaviour towards a given objective.

A straightforward way to conceive of this is to think about waiting for some unwelcome news.

If you know it will be delivered at 4pm precisely you can prepare yourself for it and manage your stress accordingly. If you only know it will probably be delivered sometime in the afternoon for most people being ‘on-edge’ from the late morning will have a significantly stronger impact on your stress levels. Under this random variable schedule every ring of the phone or knock on the door will most likely send your pulse racing and your anxiety level up.

The social media companies have designed their algorithms and interfaces to adjust to people’s behavioural responses in a way designed to optimise the outcome in a positive way, where positive is usually defined as benefitting the social media company!

Recent evidence from the UK Royal Society of Public Health has shown that not all social media platforms are equal for 16 to 24-year olds in the UK in terms of a range of impacts both positive and negative. Additionally, personal experience has shown that amongst younger teenagers some social media platforms beginning with ‘F’ are seen (somewhat disparagingly) as being ‘old technology used by millennials’.

The RSPH research raises the issue of whether a similar effect may be relevant to children and young teenagers and if so what are the key issues at the intersection of age and social media platform.

A June 2017 report from the Education Policy Institute in the UK concluded that there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate a causal link between excessive ‘screen- based lifestyles’ and adverse mental health outcomes for children. The study recommends that the focus of public policy should be to help children develop ‘resilience’ to  allow them to have a positive emotional and mental wellbeing digital life.

Having an awareness of what the platforms mean to the user is a key first step in being able to create a positive, non-confrontational approach to managing their use in children and young teenagers lives.

Before marching into the fray it is probably also worth thinking about what you might like your children and young teenagers to gain from the potential of the supercomputer social media technology they have in their hands.

In education there is a concept of core skills that young people will need to thrive in the 21C economy. These are usually defined as the 4C’s. I have thought about this and have added a 5th.

The 4C’s are:

  1. Critical Thinking
  2. Creativity
  3. Communications
  4. Collaboration.

The 5th I include is Community.

Used in a positive way, social media can deliver these to children and young people in a fun and extra-curricular way to benefit them as individuals, their families, their education and their future.

Any parent who has watched children and young people playing games like Minecraft or Clash of Clans, (or has played it themselves) should be able to envisage how with the appropriate design ethics and principles the technology could use the science of motivational psychology to create a powerful, positive internet and social media environment for children and young teenagers to engage in.

The question currently is whether the social media companies have sufficient motivation to go down this path or whether they are so locked into their current ‘attention economy’ business models that they, like a moving iceberg, cannot change direction.

There is no clear answer to that question, but in the meantime Swipe Left For Addiction will be working to develop and disseminate materials and insight to allow parents, schools, children and young teenagers to develop a positive and beneficial individual relationship with the technology that surrounds their lives and their future.

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