The Blue Whale challenge and the more recent Momo Challenge have brought home the urgency of monitoring digital usage by children.
By Dr Sapna Bangar
When I tell my children that, growing up, we didn’t have mobile phones or internet, could watch only one channel on TV and actually wrote letters that took weeks at times to reach, they look at me as if I have suddenly grown horns. As a low-tech generation, as we transition into high-tech parents, there are certain questions that plague us—At what age can you give your child a cellphone? How much screen time is okay for a toddler? How do you know what your child is doing on the internet under the guise of researching for a homework assignment? And how do you keep your child safe from predators online?
The pros and cons
There is no escaping the need to use the internet for today’s day and age. Like anything in life, internet has its benefits and perils. The media can provide exposure to new ideas and information, raising awareness of current events and issues. Students can collaborate with others on assignments and projects on many online media platforms. It helps us stay in touch with friends and family members’ long distance, has made information gathering so much easier, but the downside is that we do not take time to plan for anything well in advance. I still remember my father finding routes from maps before any journey and having a plan B and C in place, but this level of planning isn’t necessary anymore. So, we no longer challenge the frontal lobe of our brain to work hard, which has led to a generation with low distress tolerance and the need for immediate gratification.
Teens are still in a phase of development, socially, emotionally and biologically. Their prefrontal cortex or rational side of the brain is underdeveloped as compared to the limbic system, which is emotional. What this translates into is that they rarely think of consequences, are impulsive and need immediate rewards, so there is no denying that they are vulnerable to the pitfalls of social media. Parents need to be their children’s first line of defence.
The Blue Whale challenge as well as the more recent Momo Challenge has just hit home the message about how dangerous and sinister the world of internet and media can be.
The risk of cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is another peril of social media, where anonymity fuels children to be targeted. Another huge risk is ‘sexting’, which is seen in children as early as 3rd and 4th graders. Research studies have identified both benefits and concerns regarding mental health and social media use. Benefits from the use of social media in moderation include the opportunity for enhanced social support and connection. Research has suggested a U-shaped relationship between Internet use and depression, with increased risks of depression at both the high and low ends of Internet use. One study found that older adolescents who used social media passively (eg, viewing others’ photos) reported declines in life satisfaction, whereas those who interacted with others and posted content did not experience these declines. Thus, in addition to the number of hours an individual spends on social media, a key factor is how social media is used.
Parents are distracted by mobile devices
Unfortunately, some parents can be distracted by media and miss important opportunities for emotional connections that are known to improve child health. Research studies have found that when a parent turned his or her attention to a mobile device while with a young child, the parent was less likely to talk with the child. Parental engagement is critical in the development of children’s emotional and social development, and these distractions may have short- and long-term negative effects.
Lack of physical activity leading to obesity, disturbed sleep patterns due to exposure to blue light, using mobile phones whilst doing school work leading to negative effects on learning are just a few of the physical effects of excessive use of media. Children currently are at risk of ‘problematic internet use’ and ‘Internet gaming disorder’ both of which are now included in the research category of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition.
So what can parents do?
- Keep the communication channels open with your children.
- Do not bury your head in the sand with ‘My child will never do it’. Remember, good children make mistakes.
- Make yourself accessible so a child is not scared to accept his/her mistake or come to you if they are getting bullied. Try not to be judgmental with an “I told you so” as this will only alienate them to not come to you the next time.
- Educate yourself about social media and internet safety.
- Use monitoring apps and talk to your children about privacy settings on their phones.
- Use parental controls to restrict websites with age inappropriate content.
- Every once in a while, check their browsing history.
- Have internet-free family weekends every month where you rediscover the joys of playing outdoor games or board games together which leads to the bonding within the family
- Follow simple rules like no TV/phones during meal times or just 15-30 minutes where no one in the family uses any devices.
(The writer is a psychiatrist and Head-Client Care at Mpower–The Centre.)