"Owls don't have eyeballs? Is that true, mummy?" My eight-year-old daughter is reading the back of a cereal packet and this startling fact is news to both of us.
I’m not an expert in ornithology so, naturally, we turn to Google for answers. For the curious-minded: owls have long tube-shaped eyes that cannot swivel, which is why owls can turn their necks by 270 degrees. Say what you like about the all-pervasive use of technology, breakfast on this particular morning was infinitely richer for my smartphone.
I guess I'm lucky; the teenage angst about "likes" or arguments over inappropriate handles on Instagram or broadcasts via Snapchat is not for me – not yet, anyway. But should I be worrying about the creep of social media into my kids' lives at all? Not according to new Oxford University research. This analysed UK data collected on more than 12,500 adolescents in a study conducted from 2009 to 2016 and published its conclusions in the scientific journal PNAS.
Rather than comparing the happiness of kids who use social media, psychologists from the Oxford Internet Institute tracked the attitudes of individuals over time and found that less than a quarter of one per cent of an adolescent’s life satisfaction has anything to do with their use of social media. More alarming findings to the contrary are the result of how data is analysed, researchers claim.
Confused by the claims and counterclaims? Here’s some balanced advice from experts.
It's pointless to resist social media, Jordan Shapiro, an American academic and author, argues in his book, The New Childhood. He says that online forums offer adolescents a safe place to try out different versions of themselves. Whether or not their interaction is successful depends not on social media safeguards, but on parental involvement. "Whether we like it or not," Shapiro writes, "today's tweens and teens now use smartphones and social media as their transitional space. And it is a waste of energy to worry that it might be the wrong choice. After all, it is not possible for them to abandon these virtual spaces in favour of the outdated equivalents that feel more wholesome and familiar to grown-ups.
"Therefore, we should stop fighting the future and recognise that what our kids really need is assistance figuring out the best ways to steer their avatars through these experiences. How can we help them do it in ways that are kind, constructive and safe? The answer is joint media engagement."
Moderation in everything
The Oxford Internet Institute is not the first body to counter headline hysteria about the harmful effect of social media on the happiness of our children. A Unicef report published in December 2017 provides another helpful serving of perspective. A review of existing literature on whether the amount of time spent on social media bore any correlation to physical, social and mental well-being, the report concludes that moderate use of digital technology is beneficial for children’s mental health and aids social relationships. And while its authors point to considerable limitations in existing research, the report says it found “little support for the displacement hypothesis, which posits that the harm posed by technology is proportional to exposure”.
How much is too much?
Parents of young children would be hard-pressed to disagree with the World Health Organisation, which recently advised that children between two and five years old should spend no more than an hour a day passively watching a screen, while kids under two years should not be exposed to screens at all. For Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at the University of San Diego and the author of iGen, up to two hours per day is the magic number for screen time for older kids; any higher and it begins to affect their sleep patterns, another significant factor in teenage mental well-being. Try changing the tenor of the argument and make the case for your teen to get nine hours' sleep a night.
Ease up on the digital vigilance
Do you have a location-based app that tells you exactly where your children are, if not exactly what they are doing? For psychologist Lisa Damour, such trackers are a mixed blessing, a source of anxiety and arguments; ditto being able to read your child's text messages or eavesdrop on her social life via Facebook. As Damour writes in her latest bestselling book, Under Pressure, about how girls are growing up: "I can tell you that decades of being a practising clinician have convinced me that the most powerful force for good in a young person's life is having a caring, working relationship with at least one loving adult. As modern parents, we need to ensure that the time we spend monitoring our girl's technology doesn't get in the way of or threaten to take the place of that connection."