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Power Trip

Parents’ Toxic Tech Dilemma

We need to sort the technology that hurts from ones that help

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

InIn December, Facebook rolled out a Messenger app for kids under 13, touting it as a tool to help young people facilitate relationships while giving parents some control, including the ability to approve the child’s friends. The move was intended to counter widening fears that social media can have an adverse effect on kids, but in the end, it only threw more fuel on the fire. Facebook was assailed by child health experts, who argued the app undermines healthy development in children, because elementary school-age kids simply aren’t ready to deal with the complexities that result from online relationships.

The Messenger Kids app renewed the debate from parents, mental health experts, policymakers and, increasingly, company executives, about the impact of technology on development and safety — as well as what responsibilities companies have over the way that kids and teens use their products. Popular social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, stated that they want to help, not hurt, young people.

The problem is that research on how technology — particularly social media, smartphones, and general screen time — affects youth development is spotty, and for all the public outcry, there is little evidence about how internet use changes kids’ brains. There have been fears that internet addiction has risen to the level of mental illness, but the American Psychiatric Association has decided that more research is necessary before recognizing it as a disorder.

“Social media companies show you things because they’re engaging. But what’s engaging isn’t necessarily what’s good for you.”

Some studies have found benefits to using technology; many others have linked social media and other technologies to worsening relationships, cyberbullying, poor body image, aggression, and depression. In late September 2018, a study published in Lancet Child & Adolescent Health found that limiting kids’ screen time to less than two hours a day was associated with better cognition.

Still, asking whether technology hurts children and teenagers is the wrong question — a bit like asking if driving is good, or food is healthy. It all depends on what you use, and how you use it.

“Social media companies put things out to you because they’re engaging,” says Robert Kraut, a social scientist and emeritus professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University. “But what’s engaging isn’t necessarily what’s good for you.”

The key, he says, is to consume selectively, filtering out empty calories and consuming nutritious ones. But that means learning to tell the difference, which is a whole other problem.

KKraut began studying the effects of the internet on humans in the early days of the web. After 12 years at a telecommunications company that was developing and laying down internet cables, he began asking the question of whether this social technology might hurt real-life relationships.

In one of the earliest studies on this question, Kraut and his team examined 169 people in 73 households over their first one or two years of web use. They found that over time, these participants communicated less with their household members once they began using the internet. These individuals also reported feeling lonelier and more depressed.

Over the years, however, Kraut has begun looking more carefully at the ways in which people use the internet. Just looking at the sheer amount of time spent online doesn’t tell us much, he now says. Instead, the impact depends on who you’re communicating with and the nature of that communication. Closer ties with people, more substantive communication and more tailored messages — information directly meant for you as opposed to broadcast to all friends — is associated with small improvements in well-being, according to a study his group published in 2016.

In his latest study, which has not yet been published, Kraut and his colleagues Siyan Zhao and Jason Hong asked a group of teens and young adults how close they felt to three other people on a daily basis. They then looked at what the users did on their phones for days afterward, including how they used messaging apps and some social media sites like Facebook, as well as their total volume of communication. They also asked the group to rate how close they felt with their important people each day.

Then, combing through this electronic communication using a dictionary of so-called self-disclosure words that indicated emotion, first-person pronouns, singular or group references and a dictionary of planning words like “plan, movie, dinner, weekend, we, tomorrow”, they identified messages that involved planning physical get-togethers and sharing personal information. More messages with that type of content increased the reported strength of the relationship.

“You cannot remove risk in this environment, so you need to teach children to manage risk.”

In Kraut’s other previous work, his team found that passive consumption led to the opposite effect. In effect, social media, when direct and personal, contributed to well-being. When broadcast, it didn’t. “If you spend more time watching YouTube videos, ties with significant others, family, etc., decline,” says Kraut.

Indeed, a growing amount of experimental work from other researchers, like Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan, have reached similar conclusions about active versus passive internet consumption. The key appears to be using technology to form a “psychological buttress” against stress, says Kraut. Electronic communication can strengthen relationships, so users feel they have more people to turn to when they need support; the exact content of what’s discussed doesn’t matter so much.

There are other ways in which tech has been found to be good for kids. For instance, the internet allows children who live in geographically isolated environments or who have very specific interests to interact with others more than would be possible offline, according to Ana Homayoun, a school consultant who works with teens and schools on navigating technology and author of Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World.

Health researchers are also trying to harness technology to improve youth health, such as offering online prevention interventions or skills-based training targeting mental health, for instance. Increasingly, scientists also are experimenting with using machine-learning algorithms to examine internet-use patterns and content for clues when youth are suicidal. People with rare diseases have connected with each other over the internet in a way that would have been nearly impossible to do in person, say experts. In these cases, the internet builds meaningful bonds, instead of destroying them.

AA big question, then, is to what extent can we rely on tech companies to promote healthier usage of their products, particularly in young people.

Facebook has publicly stated that it wants to make changes to help users have more meaningful online experiences. Earlier this summer, Twitter announced it’s funding a series of new studies to measure healthy conversation on its platform, in an effort to try to promote healthier discourse. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in recent Congressional testimony that the company views improving the health of conversations on its platform important to its long-term growth. “We are willing to take the hard path and the decisions in order to do so,” he said.

“Facebook can act as though they are the face of good, but as long as billions of dollars are involved, call me skeptical.”

And earlier this month, COO of Instagram, Marne Levine, posted a message to the company’s blog about a new guide for parents of teenagers. It’s meant to help parents help their children learn how to better manage privacy, online interactions, and time spent on Instagram. (Neither Facebook nor Instagram responded to repeated requests for comment.)

To skeptics, this is a little like McDonald’s offering carrot sticks to offset concerns about their Happy Meals. “Facebook can act as though they are the face of good, but as long as billions of dollars are involved, call me skeptical,” says Kaveri Subrahmanyam, one of the leaders in studying the effect of media on youth, who chairs the Department of Child and Family Studies at California State University, Los Angeles.

Even if companies wanted to do the right thing, it’s not clear what the right measures are, according to Jason Hong, another Carnegie Mellon University professor of Human-Computer Interaction who studies mobile technologies. “It’s easier to go for the short-term and simple metric” of page views and time spent on the site than to target these fuzzier measures of meaningful interaction,” says Hong.

In lieu of meaningful action from tech companies, how can we ensure that kids are consuming the healthiest diet of technology possible? Many experts say the key is to teach youth how to protect themselves, much in the same way you would teach a child to opt for carrots over Doritos in a world where junk food is cheap and abundant.

“You cannot remove risk in this environment, so you need to teach children to manage risk,” says Will Gardner, CEO of Childnet International, a London-based nonprofit, and Director of the U.K. Safer Internet Centre. “In order to manage risk you need to be developing the parts of the brain that are developing,” such as the regions involved with critical thinking.

Childnet runs programs that train youth to become “digital leaders” and teach their peers how to protect their digital reputation, be a good friend online and generally protect their safety online. Since the program launched in the U.K. three years ago, some 5,000 children are undergoing training and 2,000 have already been trained.

The school consultant Homayoun works directly with teens to teach them how to socialize online safely and in a healthy way. She asks youth if they find their online experiences energizing or draining, then emphasizes they can opt out of elements of social media and learn how to compartmentalize so they aren’t always distracted by technology. She also discusses with them if they have an adult to go to if something online doesn’t go as planned.

She helped advise Instagram on part of its new parents’ guide because “parents do not speak the language of social media,” she says. Parents need to build awareness of social media, learn to ask open-ended questions without judgement and help their kids evaluate their decisions.

“We want kids to be safe, know their options and develop proactive resources,” says Homayoun.

Subrahmanyam, the Cal State research, says that technology amplifies what happens in real life, so it’s critical to boost offline relationships, even in this digital age. “If people already have good offline relationships, they can use technology to boost and extend those,” she says. “Ultimately we have to recognize that technology is a tool, and like with any other tool, it depends on how you use it.”

Shirley is a London-based health and science writer.

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