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Born connected: Children and teens in the age of technology

Some of social media’s youngest consumers have grown up in a world that has had them plugged-in from the day they were born.

Put an iPhone or iPad in the hands of a typical two-year-old and prepare to be amazed. She can not only find the app to play her favorite “Ponyville” game, she will probably also organize your contacts with touch-screen skills that are quick, deliberate, and intuitive.

And she is copying her older siblings, who are also basking in a sea of glowing screens of different sizes and descriptions.

One might be playing “Star Wars Angry Birds.” Another could be video chatting with a friend on Facebook, or posting a photo to Instagram, or sending a 140-character missive into the Twittersphere.

The advantages are clear. Today’s young people know how to find complex information within seconds, and they have “friends” that may span the globe.

Then there’s Mom and Dad, who are also likely to be on their own electronic devices. If they are like most parents, they are careful and vigilant. They may have even imposed rules about “screen time” versus “quality face-to-face time.” But the reality of the next generation of Americans is they are the most wired, plugged-in, technology-dependent human beings in history, and this constant connectivity is raising ethical, legal, and psychological dilemmas no one saw coming even five years ago.

According to a 2011 clinical report on “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families” published last year in Pediatrics, the official journal of The American Academy of Pediatrics, 22 percent of teenagers log on to their favorite social media site more than 10 times a day, and more than half of adolescents log on to a social media site more than once a day. “Seventy-five percent of teenagers now own cell phones, and 25 percent use them for social media, 54 percent use them for texting, and 24 percent use them for instant messaging. Thus, a large part of this generation’s social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet and on cell phones,” an abstract of the report concludes.

The advantages are clear. Today’s young people know how to find complex information within seconds, and they have “friends” that may span the globe. It’s the dark side—the cyberbullying and most recently, stories of teens posting unflattering or embarrassing photos of young people on Facebook in effort to publicly “shame” them—or even the danger of 24/7 addiction, compulsion, and obsessions that sends shivers down parents’ spines across the nation. In a talk presented at the 119th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in 2011, Dr. Larry D. Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University, had some cold, hard warnings for parents.

Teens who use Facebook more often show narcissistic tendencies while young adults who have a strong Facebook presence show more signs of the other psychological disorders, including antisocial behaviors, mania, and aggressive tendencies, Rosen reported in “Poke Me: How Social Networks Can Both Help and Harm Our Kids.” He also said that daily overuse of media and technology has a negative effect on the health of all children, preteens, and teenagers by making them more prone to anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders.

His research did have some high notes, including findings that young adults who spend more time on Facebook are better at showing “virtual empathy” to their online friends, and that social networking—when used in a healthy way—can provide compelling tools for teaching young students.

Still, the dilemma remains. How do we raise healthy, smart kids in this new, sometimes scary and overwhelming, digital world?

Voices of experience

Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, social media veteran and a Ph.D. candidate in The Chicago School of Professional Psychology’s International Psychology program, says her first foray into the virtual world was AOL, at age 17.

“I was never on MySpace because, intuitively, I felt it was too open. There is social media for every kind of taste. If you’re pithy and succinct, Twitter is for you with a 140-character limitation,” she says, adding: “Facebook has done so much for mankind. The genocide survivors I have worked with in Rwanda have asked me to add them. One in 12 people in the world is on Facebook. It’s sort of a worldwide directory.”

With blog posts and other social media endeavors that are now read around the globe, Bais is definitely a fan. But as a user, and an expert via some decade of experience, she also sees how some young people get into trouble with these mediums.

“If it were not for social media, I would not be able to connect with people in different countries and get immensely helpful tips/ideas at a stroke of a button,” she explains. “Having said that, it’s often a great distraction, and it can cause a lowering of self-esteem as many try to consistently project their ‘best’ self. For teenagers, the amount of lingo and shortcuts in spelling/grammar is outstanding. But I think it will have significant effect on writing/reading/comprehension/speaking skills because nothing substitutes for interpersonal interaction. The anonymity factor of social media has unleashed a new wave of material waiting to be researched. The wave is both inspirational and demonic in nature.”

As MIT professor Sherry Turkle writes in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other, “The network’s effects on today’s young people are paradoxical.” A licensed clinical psychologist who is also founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, she believes that some teenagers are beginning to turn away from the “real time” demands of the telephone and disappear into roleplaying games they describe as “communities.”

“They start to resent the devices that force them into performing their profiles; they long for a world in which personal information is not taken from them automatically, just as the cost of doing business. Often it is children who tell their parents to put away the cell phone at dinner. It is the young who begin to speak up about the problems that, to their eyes, their elders have given up on.”

But have we given up?

Dr. Thomas Barrett, chair and associate professor in the clinical psychology department at TCSPP’s Chicago Campus, doesn’t think so.

A secret life

In 2012, Barrett, published an article in the Child Analysis journal that cites social media and virtual worlds as a place where teenagers seek answers to problems that have been plaguing young people for generations.

In “The Secret Life of Teens: What you don’t know about them—What they may not know about themselves …” Barrett writes that it’s a combination of hope and longing that compels teenagers to turn to each other in these worlds.

While Barrett admits there are dangers to this behavior and a real potential for depression and other psychological disorders to come out of it, he shares Turkle’s philosophy that while the medium is new, teenagers are merely acting the way they always have.

“A recent study of teenage behavior claimed that, through Internet or ‘text’ messaging, teens connect with an average of 35 people for a total of three hours per week. In a related way, consider the immense popularity among teens of such Internet sites as Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube where teens can both use (and abuse) the opportunity to compose, create, and share information with another, often times spending several hours a day in such activities.”

Turkle suggests that this new connectivity offers new possibilities for experimenting with identity, particularly in adolescence, and the sense of a free space, what Erik Erikson called the “moratorium.” “This is a time, relatively consequence free, for doing what adolescents need to do: fall in and out of love with people and ideas. Real life does not always provide this kind of space, but the Internet does,” she writes.

While Barrett admits there are dangers to this behavior and a real potential for depression and other psychological disorders to come out of it, he shares Turkle’s philosophy that while the medium is new, teenagers are merely acting the way they always have.

“Again, I think this has to be understood in the context of a continuum,” he says in an interview from his Chicago office. “The idea of my article is to appreciate that this is what teenagers try to do to avoid feeling alone. I see it not as a defensive thing but as something that is being utilized to try to cope and try to find a way to get through a difficult period of life.”

However, he does think the medium is raising the stakes for the future of our children.

“One thing that’s important for those who work with teenagers and even young adults is to encourage them to think about the long-term consequences of what they’re going to say,” Barrett explains. “These are new issues young people need to think about. There used to be this idea that until you were done with adolescence, you got a pass. But if you have traces of your past immaturity lingering on the Internet that could be hard to escape or live down, that’s something you might long regret.”

The report in Pediatrics echoes the same concerns, suggesting that the main risk to pre-adolescents and adolescents online today are risks from each other, risks of improper use of technology, lack of privacy, sharing too much information, or posting false information about themselves or others.

In today’s world, a “digital footprint” is a permanent record. It’s up to all of us to keep our children’s as clean and safe as possible.

“Just like parents square up to have a talk about sexuality, so must they with the ramifications of an online footprint,” says Bais, whose work around the world as a model and blogger has required her to stay vigilant about how she is being portrayed online.” There are countless incidences of people being expelled or not getting admitted to the college of their dreams because of misuse of social media.”

She also says that young people need to remember that they have the right—and more importantly, the responsibility—to control and regulate what their friends say about them or post online.

“As hard as it might be, try to think of your dream when you’re 20 or 30. What are things that could get in the way? Think long-term and realize that your online footprint lasts forever,” Bais advises “Never Tweet, “like,” “pin,” or update something that you wouldn’t want to have around forever that everyone can see. That’s the golden rule of thumb.”

*This article, originally appearing in the Spring 2013 issue of INSIGHT magazine, was updated in October 2016.

Sherry Thomas


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