Possible perils of social media

Concerning: Local experts say adolescents must exercise common sense when using social media and engage in meaningful offline activities. — The Straits Times/ANN

Establishing tech-free periods, tracking screen time and modelling responsible social media behaviour are some of the steps that parents take to protect young people from the potential perils of social media.

But the burden of mitigating the risks of social media should not fall entirely on parents and youth, as it mostly has, said United States Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy.

He recently called on policymakers, technology companies and researchers to also help create healthy and safe social media environments to safeguard the mental well-being of children and adolescents.

Dr Murthy, who issued an advisory on social media use last Tuesday, said there is not enough data to show that social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents.

Meanwhile, they are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content to bullying and harassment.

For too many children, social media use compromises their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends, he said in a statement accompanying the advisory.

Local experts say parents and adolescents must also exercise common sense when using social media, understand the potential harm that prolonged use can have on developing brains, and engage in meaningful offline activities.

“We need to act with caution, practise common sense around screens and use the advisory as a conversational starter to inform youth about the possible perils of social media, even as research or evidence is evolving,” said Dr Chong Shang Chee, a senior consultant who heads the Child Development Unit at National University Hospital’s Khoo Teck Puat-National University Children’s Medical Institute.

The US advisory said social media can provide benefits for some children and adolescents, including by serving as a source of connection for youth who are often marginalised, and as a source of important information.

However, inappropriate content and excessive use can harm. Adolescents aged 12 to 15 who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of poor mental health, including experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The advisory said social media may perpetuate body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviours, social comparison and low self-esteem, especially among adolescent girls. Studies have shown a relationship between excessive social media use and poor sleep quality, sleep difficulties and reduced durations, and depression among youth.

It also said those aged 10 to 19 are at particularly vulnerable stages of brain development, when risk-taking behaviours reach their peak.

Their well-being experiences the greatest fluctuations and mental health challenges such as depression typically emerge. Social media exposure during this period thus warrants additional scrutiny, the advisory said.

The advisory said that direct pushes, unwanted content exchanges and algorithmic designs can spread extreme, inappropriate and harmful content on social media to children and adolescents.

At the same time, push notifications, autoplay, infinite scroll and display of popularity using the “like” button, as well as other features of social media platforms often designed to maximise user engagement, can encourage excessive use and behavioural dysregulation.

“Our children have become unknowing participants in a ‘decades-long experiment’,” it said.

A lack of access to data from tech firms has been a barrier to understanding the full scope and scale of the impact of social media on child and adolescent mental health and well-being, it added.

Screen time research is still emerging, given that social media became popular only about a decade ago, said Dr Chong, who is also an adjunct associate professor at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and a member of the Child and Maternal Health and Well-being Taskforce.

There is a need to pay heed to stronger emerging evidence that warrants greater awareness of potential harm or precautionary advice on a public health level, she said.

Two secondary school counsellors, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that cyberbullying cases are on the rise, with youth often getting bullied online for their views.

They said that while they are able to provide timely guidance and intervention, the main challenge is monitoring students’ consumption of social media outside school.

In Singapore, cyberwellness and mental health are part of the Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum in primary and secondary schools.

Loh Wee Cheng, divisional director of Student Development Curriculum Division 1 at the Ministry of Education, said the ministry has given greater emphasis to cyberwellness in the refreshed curriculum.

Meanwhile, the Government’s Interagency Taskforce on Mental Health and Well-being, set up in 2021, is working on a national strategy for mental health that will include practical solutions to mitigate online risks, such as cyberbullying.

Loh said that a parents’ toolbox is also being developed to equip them with knowledge and skills to support their children’s mental health and well-being, including parenting in the digital age.

“The inculcation of healthy online habits in our young requires active efforts from both schools and families. Parents play a crucial role in guiding and monitoring their children’s device use and online activities,” she said.

“Schools will continue to work with parents and community groups to guide our students to cultivate good digital habits and use digital technology safely and responsibly.”

However, a secondary school teacher in charge of implementing the CCE curriculum noted that while students are repeatedly taught about the risks of social media and how to manage them, there is no yardstick to assess the effectiveness of these lessons and how they impact students’ consumption of social media.

The role of parents in social media use

Parents thus need to play a bigger part in role-modelling the appropriate use of social media outside school, he said.

For instance, parents should not use their mobile phones idly during family meals at a restaurant, or spend a lot of time at home just scrolling through social media, he said.

“No matter how much is taught in school about using social media positively, it can get unlearnt when the students go back home,” he added.

In March 2023, the Ministry of Health (MOH) launched its Guidance On Screen Use In Children, the first local advisory on screen use for families with children up to 12 years old.

Dr Chong, who co-chaired the screen use expert subgroup that advised MOH on the advisory, said: “We hope that this will primarily start a shift in parental knowledge, and a reflection by parents on the home front about our relationship with screens – the good and the bad – and to help parents understand the dual dimensions of it.”

She added: “Children can benefit if the use is appropriate, intentional and supervised, as in the advisory.”

Dr Chong said the general advice on collaborating with children on a screen use plan and having conversations with them on screen use applies to children older than 13 as well.

She said the US advisory outlined another important dimension – corporate social responsibility, which should be strengthened.

“It also brings up a whole new dimension of how difficult it is to shape moral behaviours for our children in this digital age – where parents have little control over what their children are exposed to without themselves understanding what may be potentially harmful,” she said.

“For example, some parents may not think specific content can cause children to have low self-esteem, while other parents may think there are hidden messages of social comparison in the social media postings – again subject to individual vulnerabilities and contextual factors.”

The US advisory briefly touched on the perils of parenting in the digital age, saying that nearly 70% of parents say parenting is now more difficult than it was 20 years ago, with technology and social media as the top two cited reasons.

Parents face significant challenges in managing their children’s use of social media applications, and children’s use of social media at increasingly earlier ages makes their job even harder.

Although age 13 is commonly the required minimum age used by social media platforms in the US, nearly 40% of children aged eight to 12 use social media, the advisory said.

Institute of Mental Health senior clinical psychologist Brian Poh said parents can help reinforce the importance of Internet safety, monitor their children’s social media usage by having frequent conversations about social media trends, and constantly remind them of the dangers.

As an easy and fast platform to transmit information, social media by itself is neutral, he said, adding that there are benefits, like the new communities that are formed every day that connect people with the same interests.

“The crux of the matter is how it is used. Youth are often concerned about portraying their best image both in real life and on social media,” said Poh.

“As social media is now ubiquitous and part of youth’s lives, it is impossible to completely eradicate its usage. However, we can prepare them for stressful situations that they might face when using social media, by problem-solving together and rehearsing how to handle specific situations like cyberbullying,” said Poh.

He advises young people to have a life outside the digital world, and be meaningfully engaged in other areas of their lives.

Poh also said that some youth groups are at higher risk of harm from social media use.

Those who are more hyperactive and inattentive may get more engaged with social media use as it provides them with stimulation and rapid responses that reduce their sense of boredom.

They are also more impulsive and have less self-control with social media use, which might lead to negative consequences such as addiction, he added.

Younger users may have less self-control, and the earlier they are exposed to social media without parental supervision or controls, the higher the likelihood that they might get addicted to its use, he said.

Joanne Wong, head of Touch Cyber Wellness, which holds cyberwellness talks and workshops in schools, said she has heard anecdotes from students about using social media to seek social validation, and then becoming obsessed with portraying a perfect life on social media for that extra “like” or “follow”.

“Unfortunately, many of them measure their self-worth using social media metrics, and they end up feeling frustrated or lousy about themselves,” she said.

“We often remind youth that what they see online is highly curated, edited, and often shows only the best parts or moments of someone’s life. It would be unrealistic for them to compare their own lives with what they see on social media.”

In addition, parents should provide a safe space for their children, if they want to confide about feeling uneasy, worried or threatened in their online interactions.

Wong said the Government is relooking the Online Criminal Harms Bill to further safeguard the Internet and create a safer online space for Singaporeans.

Dr Chong added that there is a lack of research and guidance on ethical behaviours on digital platforms, and these need to be looked at in the near future. — The Straits Times/ANN

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