All the topics on the blog are covered in my podcast; the courageous Mumma
for you to hear in audio. See you there.
This is one of the subjects I am most commonly asked about. It's a great topic to look at because not only do we get a chance to talk about how to protect our children - and more importantly, how to help them protect themselves, but also it gives us an application for some of the key topics that feel important in parenting:
It took science about a hundred years after the advent of cigarettes, to work out the dangers of inhaling tobacco smoke, and put some measures in place.
Things move more quickly these days, but it’s likely that in another decade or so there will be enough evidence to conclude that social media and gaming can be detrimental to mental health…and then all sorts of things may kick in at government and every level.
There’s already a groundswell of noise among MPs about what restrictions should be imposed on the tech companies and in schools and hopefully we'll begin to see some legal expectations on the platforms to protect their users.
But in the meantime, our children
will be that emerging evidence!
Not everyone who uses social media will suffer with mental health issues just as not everyone who uses alcohol and even binge drinks will become alcoholics. But there are many families whose children will be negatively impacted and many that already are.
A quick glance at Data Ons (a govt stats site) shows the rise in young people seeking counselling and in teen suicides. The waiting list for CAMS (counselling for adolescent mental health) is alarming too.
So why is it all so challenging?
Let’s take a look at their two main challenges.
1. The Brain
Recent developments in neuroscience have given us helpful new insights into how brains work.
The brain has two main areas from which it responds to external stimuli. One is the Prefrontal Cortex
That’s the place where reason and rationale reign. Its functions include:
The second is the Amygdala
This is our fight or flight responder. It gives a helpful adrenaline boost when we’re in fear of danger.
It enables us to behave outside the bandwidth of our normal characteristics, such as jumping out of a second storey window when the house is on fire, even if you're afraid of heights.
It's essentia. It's a life saver. But...
sometimes THE AMYGDALA works outside its job remit and responds not just of fear of danger but to all fear:
Fear of having its pride knocked
Fear of being offended
Fear of people’s opinions of them
Fear of failure
Fear of not getting what it wants
As luck would have it, whilst the PreFrontal Cortex matures around our mid twenties, the Amygdala is fully developed by the age of 2! That could explain why young people sometimes react impetuously, rather than after careful consideration.
I don’t know if you’ve ever witnessed -
And generally making impetious and sometimes poor choices without proper consideration of the consequences.
The Amygdala is triggered and in full flow, whilst the dear frontal cortex is busy slowly maturing.
And whilst an iPaddy or a banged door, a strop or defiant behaviour all have their rightful consequences, poor, impetuous, online choices can be harder to monitor or coach and they can cause problems, hurts and even disasters.
Take the example of one of my children about five years ago receiving a SnapChat of one of his classmates dying.
The poor harrowed teenager had decided to hang himself in the woods. When he was found by a group of teenagers their first response was not to call the emergency services but to take a snap and post it.
That's hard to unsee!
That's an impetuous, Amygdala driven choice that I daresay the sender regrets posting to this day.
Added to that ever-ready Amygdala is another brain element: DOPAMINE
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that sends us foraging to pursue our primal needs of food, shelter and warmth. We’d be very lost without it: Research has shown that a dopamine deficient mouse next to a pile of food will die of hunger.
Dopamine enables us to take action towards a reward.
For various reasons, Dopamine distribution in the early adolescent brain drives them to greater risks than the adult brain in pursuing the reward-thrills.
This motivation isn’t just reserved for their primal needs, but to all sorts of rewards.
And as they get older
And in some cases
Dopamine loves the anticipation of satisfaction. What we might call the thrill of the chase.
Once satisfied, all things being equal, the perceived need takes a break. Such as when we’re full or warm or satisfied, depending on what we’re seeking.
But social media has no stopping cues.
social media has no stopping cues
The opportunities of digital technology are inexhaustible.
The tech giants are conscientiously consipiring to lure us and our children to their sites with the full knowledge that there is a psychological vulnerability, particularly among adolescents.
Sean Parker, Former CEO of FB explained that when Facebook was being developed the objective was, “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”
It was this mindset that led to the creation of features such as the “like” button that would give users in his words, “a little dopamine hit,” to encourage them to upload more content.
He referred to it as s a social-validation feedback loop
If you, like me, are someone who likes the hard facts and figures you can search names like
Also previously of FB and see why they are disaffected and the damage they feel SM is doing to our
attention, IQ, productivity and to society.
Even Steve Jobs, when interviewed, let on that his children didn’t have iPads. His insight would have been similar to employees of Google, Apple and Yahoo, many of whom also protect their children by sending them to schools where tech is banned. Such as the Waldorf School in Silican Valley.
They are all too aware that the surge of dopamine in the young brain keeps kids (and us) foraging on the inexhaustible on line. And if you find it hard to pull-back when you’ve gone surfing, imagine not having the congnitive maturity to regulate yourself.
So, children today have quite a cocktail:
A fully developed amygdala
An underdeveloped PreFrontal Lobe
A jacked up supply of dopamine
Profit-hungry tech predators
Is it any wonder that whilst an adolescent brain is still under construction and while neural pathways are forming, adolescents are susceptible to forming addictive habits?
Great news for share prices.
Not so great for our kids.
I’m sure you only need to look around you on any average day to see the outworking of all of that.
Counsellors and doctors I have worked alongside will point to the symptoms they regularly hear from their clients:
…that often link to their child’s online world
All characteristics of addiction!
I’m going to offer you great hope shortly and some good tools. That wasn’t an attempt to frighten you, but I do hope that exposing some of the factors at play will help to explain why this is all so mesmerizing for our children.
I also believe that understanding those factors will give us the compassion and the knowledge to help us form a plan, because it’s a battle worth fighting.
I know that it’s tempting to wish that we had a magic wand and we could wave away Social Media and go back to the days when our kids didn’t expect to communicate through electronic devices.
But think of it this way. It is in the home-years that we can coach and encourage our children to self-regulate in the world that is waiting for them.
The environment that our children will be adults in will have far more temptations and choices than any previous generation has had to contend with –
more mobile phones are sold each year now than toothbrushes
and that can cause two common reactions among parents:
Bury our heads
Yet there is so much we can do
We are empowered and we do have influence
Before you get a phone from a provider, you’ll have to sign a contract. By the same token, it’s helpful to offer your children a two-way contract before they get access to social media.
If they already have access, it’s not too late. You’re probably paying the bills at home, don’t underestimate your parental authority.
It’s ok to say, "I think we need to revisit the boundaries."
Some parents choose to do this in writing, others verbally. Whichever way it’s done they need a clear understanding in order to avoid confusion - and conflict!
Here’s one thing I really recommend before you even begin to talk about the boundaries – LISTEN to your children first.
They often have interesting things to say. After all, they’re reporting directly from the front line.
Take the issue from being between you and put it in front of you where you can both look at it from the same angle.
A helpful start is to ask them what they think the pros and cons are. Challenge them to write down 10 of each. I’ve had so much great feedback from this exercise.
One parent said. "My daughter went away and thought about it and on her list she’d noted that media sites didn’t have children’s interests at heart." Isn't that so much better coming from her daughter than from the mother. She’ll engage with that as truth now.
another child cited that he felt it helped his social confidence. That's another great conversation to be having with a child.
so what sort of boundaries should we put in place?
I’m sure you’ve all thought of some, such as:
So, can I encourage you to make them responsible for their own management of those boundaries?
If you’ve given them an hour a day, they could be responsible for being able to demonstrate that they’re timing themselves when they’re on a device. Remember, they can save world two thumbs on a digital game, they're definitely able to find a timing device.
Here are a few ideas that we’ve put in place. I’m using ours, simply because it’s helpful to offer things that have work in practice, not just idealistic ideas.
- Ours have to return the phones to port when they get home from school, then they can have them back after dinner if all their homework is done.
- Up until they’re out of full time education at 18 have to return their phone to port half an hour before bedtime. The older they get the less they love that!
-We have a digital amnesty on Sunday afternoons. They survive!
Buy an alarm clock
I will be bold and say that where parents report disconnect, inability to really communicate with their child and a sense that they live in a separate world, it's usually the case that the child has the phone with them over night.
Some might say, but ALL teenagers disconnect. That's not true. Yes, our teenagers can develop independence and that's healthy, but they don’t need to be disconnected from us. I know of many families, including ours, where connection isn’t lost through the teen years.
With an underdeveloped PreFrontal Cortex, Dopamine surging through their brains, an every ready amygdala and tech predators at the ready, how could they resist buzzing and pinging and lighting up at 2 am?
13 is the recommended age for social media and we’ve found that feels about right. The minimum age for WhatsApp has been moved to 16.
Interestingly, The NSPCC did a survey last year and found that over half of parents are unaware of the minimum age for social media.
It’s hard putting and keeping boundaries in places. I’m going to look at a few ways to gently keep them in place, but ultimately we need to hold our nerve and ...
We should be more concerned about
what’s good for our children
than what they think
of our boundaries
When they do go onto social media it's an idea to choose one site at first, then friend or follow them to see how they're doing. Risk your popularity with them for that.
And although Snap Chat and WhatsApp are still the most popular, it's worth knowing a few less savoury ones that are out there.
Yubo (Previously Yellow) Works like tinder, swipe to say yes to new friends.
We'd say, and I bet you would too, that SM follows friendship, not the reverse.
Anonymously post what you think of people
Make friends with strangers
rife with sex predators
Process cathartically online.
This is also a common place to appeal for sex
To name a few...check them out!
Some parents choose to have open access to their children’s tech. I know this can be effective. We prefer to ask them from time to time if we can go through it with them.
It’s not foolproof, but even having full access to their accounts doesn’t show us what’s going on in SnapChat, for example as the posts disappear without a trace.
There’s no ideal, it’s about finding preferences. We feel it’s more effective to go through their stuff with them present. It's a bit like when you're sitting next to your parents as a child innocently watching a movie and then a love scene comes up.That presence makes the mental filters behave differently. What might have seemed fine on your own whilst watching TV is suddenly cringey when a parent is present. By that same token, something that looks innocent on the back of a bus or in they room, looks completely different in front of you. It makes them think differently about what to engage with.
And then you can also ask all the important questions:
Do they know all their contacts?
Who are they gaming with?
Do they understand about Phishing?
Do they keep their personal details private?
Do they know not to post pictures of the front of your home?
Which sites are they on?
And when they're sharing with you - no matter how alarmed or concerned you are, stay chilled. They need to know you're a safe place to share. keep your poker face. Not a droll face - just don't give away that your Amygdala is on fire!
Don't let on that your Amygdala is on fire!
When you're going through their phones look behind some of the innocent apps such as calculators or music apps. They could be vaults - places to keep info or photos they don't want you to see.
Look out for mood changes. Those days when their behaviour just doesn't seem to add up.
The aggy behavior
Bugging and irritating
They all suffer from that to a greater or lesser degree (don't we all?), but there are times as a parent that you just feel a sense of unease…that there’s a reason lurking.
Friends may tell you
Boys will be boys
Kids can be cruel
And it may be, or it may be contributing. But if your gut says there could be more, trust yourself and check their phone with them.
But there are also some safeguards you can buy into. None of them are substitutes for
Safeguard Options are constantly changing and most of them enable you to manage their technology from your phone
use time blocks for homework or sleep
block certain apps
see which apps they’ve been using and for how long
put their phone on emergency mode, even remotely
block inappropriate content
Apps are also working on...
blocking images, nudity, profanity and violence– which it would report to your phone.
detect character patterns and mood changes to spot anomalies and detect cyberbullying, grooming and aggression. But they're not quite there yet.
And our research says that they all have their limitations.
And bear in mind the kids are always ahead. Omegle encourages you to write backwards to avoid the filters!
Next week I'm going to chat about the ways that we can put boundaries in place for our children without falling out with them.
It's so important to have parenting strategies, not just to be made aware of the dangers, so I'll cover how to cope with potential conflict as well as share ways to divert their attention from their online world.
If you've enjoyed this, share it with a friend and pop across to the podcast.
See you there,
These topics are covered in greater detail in my book, Parenting For Life