Charu Vaid, (SCMP with Alberta Health Services, Canada)

First things first; let’s acknowledge that social media and online networking are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. That said; let us look at how the presence of this aspect of today’s lifestyle is impacting children. Social media is a fairly recent phenomenon, yet it has entirely changed the way children interact and behave. This is not only evident in their behaviour with their peers, but also with everyone around them.

To delve into the brief history of social media, there are several perspectives, but in its current shape, it has been around for about two decades. That being said, it became part of mainstream culture more recently than that. By 2000, the world saw the availability of Internet to reach a of about hundred million people. Around this time people actually started utilizing chat rooms for online social interaction. Due to the exponential growth in technology since, by 2003 there were a couple of highly popular social media sites that paved the path for things to come. The arrival of Facebook in 2004 (initially meant for use by Harvard students only, Mark Zuckerberg had the vision for it to be used for a wider purpose) completely revolutionized and changed the way people interacted on social media. Today, there are several social media platforms that allow users to interact, share and collaborate in a way that has never been done before.

There are people like me, who have been kinetic learners during this evolution; people who have adapted to the fast moving changes on how social interaction and technology have mish-mashed and changed over time. Then there are children of today that were born into this era of hyper online social interaction. We keep comparing their interactions to ours, but the truth of the matter is that this is all they have seen. It does not absolve this kind of interaction from all its cons, neither does it discount all of its pros. I summarize from Dale Carnegie’s book – How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age: Whatever we communicate on social media gets magnified many fold. If the quality of what or how we communicate is good, it gets magnified exponentially due to the outreach of this form of platform of social interaction. On the flip side, if we communicate something bad, it is subject to the same. Hence, we see posts, tweets, pictures and videos going viral. Some of them are good and some not as much.

Let us talk about the positives first. Social media has made the world a small place, whereby you can literally send what you are thinking, from the North Pole to the South Pole within a matter of seconds, given the availability of the Internet. It has made virtual collaboration so easy, that someone sitting in San Francisco can be presenting to, or having a video chat with someone sitting in New Delhi, and all this in real time. Social media has brought people together like never before. Children can talk and chat with their grandparents and relatives worldwide. It has enabled the sharing of ideas for the purpose of brainstorming. Children can be sitting in the sanctity of their homes, and be collaborating on school projects, bouncing of ideas, planning on how best to accomplish the assignment, and actually finalizing and seeing the assignment to completion. Social media has enabled an amazing and awe inspiring sensory, audio-visual experience, whereby many different formats of applications can be shared with individuals, groups, or the world by making a couple of effortless clicks with one’s finger tips! Social media enables children to be kinetic learners, allowing them to adapt and change to the fast changing technological landscape of today. This also prepares children to align their thought process to the modern work environment, where the use of technology is widespread and rampant. There is a high level of feeling of being fearless due to being invisible to the other children that one is interacting with, that it allows for freedom of speech. It provides platform for learning and gaining knowledge, whereby children can explore information on whatever subject they want to.

Like anything else that comprises this universe, there does exist an area that signifies the ills of social media among children. Social media is not in silos, which is to say that it is not sectioned and rated like often times movies are. Whatever exists within the realm of social media, whether it is good or bad, it is all out there, and free for all, children included.

This means that children are susceptible to come across information, imagery or videos that are inappropriate or harmful for their viewing. This has the potential of negatively impacting the way of thinking. Too much time spent on social media can hamper and deeply affect a child to have interpersonal social interactions. Because of the way social media has evolved, it is known to inculcate the narcissistic sentiment in children who are on it for prolonged hours per day. Addiction to social media can manifest in the form of many physical and psychological problems in children. Sleeplessness is an outcome of overuse of social media among a lot of children. This has a domino effect on the other activities that they perform, such as studying and sports. Online bullying is a very harsh outcome of social media. It is something that immensely affects a child’s psyche, sometimes pushing the child to take drastic steps. One very obvious ill of social media is that it results in a waste of a lot of time. The other outfall of this problem is the amount of time it takes to return focus to productive work after one has logged off from social media, as one is reminiscing for some time about their recent interaction.

Some of the lessons that I have learnt along with my son are never to post anything that can be or construed as harmful for self or other individuals. There have been cases where children have been suspended from school or have even faced conviction, for something that they carelessly shared online. A few other lessons that my son has learnt are; 1. Never meet in person with anyone you first ‘met’ on the Internet; 2. Embarrassing or risqué pictures, rude or mean comments, or illegal activities will not disappear forever. Watch what you post about yourself or others; 3. Many people make great new friends online, but a lot of people make up fake identities and trick you into giving them a lot of personal information. Avoid doing that.

To conclude, it is very important to educate children about the good and bad effects of social media, and also how they can use it optimally to their benefit. Parents and educators have a huge role to play in this area. It is very important to educate children about a positive and high quality technology experience, as opposed to a negative one, full of problems.

On that note, happy and safe surfing!

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