It isn’t long since I wrote about screens and their impact on children and teenagers. Indeed, that article differed from my usual perspective. For the first time I had come across a piece of research that suggested that increased screen use is not that bad for children, and to be balanced I shared it with you.
owever, even as I wrote it, it jarred with me, since I have consistently found evidence over the years that screens are not good for children. Then, during last week, I came across a report about the leaked Facebook (now Meta) research which identified, from within the company, that they seemed to know that Instagram may be damaging to teenage girls’ mental health. Immediately, all of my misgivings about social media and smartphones (more specifically than just screens) returned.
According to the report I read, one internal Meta study of teenagers in the UK and US found that more than 40pc of Instagram users who said they felt “unattractive” said the feeling began while using the app. A separate UK survey, by the Girl Guides, of over 2,000 girls aged between 7 and 21 found that 40pc of girls aged 11 to 16 years say they have seen images online that have made them feel insecure or less confident about themselves.
Instagram also influences boys’ perceptions of an ideal body shape. One study found that posts with leaner, more muscular men, received more engagement (likes and comments) than posts with other body shapes. In the US, the National Eating Disorders Association says that the emphasis on having a sculpted body has led about 25pc of men to believe they are underweight and 90pc of adolescent boys to exercise so that they can gain muscle mass. Body dissatisfaction, driven by social media, is not just a problem for girls.
Social Cognitive Theory is often cited to explain how and why we compare ourselves to others. The difficulty with social media representations of beauty, on apps like Instagram, however, is that often they are false. Many images have been digitally “retouched” prior to posting. Facial blemishes are routinely erased, lip and hair colour get accentuated, eyes get reshaped, limbs get lengthened and thinned, and waists get cinched. Even if children and teenagers are alert to this, the images themselves remain powerful and can subliminally subvert.
Social media is not the only problem with smartphone usage among teenagers, however. I am beginning to think, more and more, that smartphones are just bad for teenagers. Indeed, I think they are bad for all of us.
When I was younger and on holiday here in Ireland, I was amused by foreign tourists (who seemed to be the only people who could afford camcorders) who seemed to spend their holiday recording the experience rather than living it. But that practice of recording life rather than living it is endemic now. Look at any music concert and the audience is filled with the light of smartphones directed at the stage recording the concert. God forbid you’d go to the concert just for the experience.
I was in Dublin recently and saw more groups of teenagers than usual and was struck by their separateness within their groups as they all focused, heads down, on their smartphones and not on each other. Being driven along, walking along, even cycling along, with your eyes glued to your phone seems to be the teenage way to commute.
Do you try to have family movies at home? If so, how many of your family members with phones can last the whole movie without checking their phone, or engaging with it? Even innocuous googling of “how old is A.N.Other movie star?” disrupts your experience of the shared event. We have all become slave to the smartphone “ping”, buzz or red notification icon.
I run outdoor adventure therapy weeks over the summer and, according to their parents, some teenagers have refused to come because they couldn’t countenance being without their phones. How many families are riven with conflict about their teenagers’ access to their phones at the cost of homework, socialising with the family, or getting to sleep?
Having the internet in their pockets is increasingly disruptive to children’s and teenagers’ lives. There was a time I used to argue that because the technology had advanced, we had no choice but to try to educate teenagers to use it safely and wisely. I think the evidence is mounting that we are failing to do this, maybe because we no longer even use it safely and wisely ourselves.
I’ve often posed the question to children and teenagers, “if you had a magic wand and could change anything in your life, what would you change?” Their answers often point to fertile areas for therapeutic change. If I got asked the same question, my answer is no longer mood or situation dependent. Now I am clear; I’d get rid of smartphones. We don’t need the internet in our pockets.