A generation of kids has used social media their whole lives. Here's how it's changing them

Some digital natives have seen their entire lives mediated through social media posts. Is this healthy?

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published February 11, 2021 6:17PM (EST)

Kids on smartphones (Getty Images)
Kids on smartphones (Getty Images)

In 2004, when Facebook was still known as "The Facebook," very few people could imagine that the social media platform would hold as much power and influence as it does today. Similar to MySpace, people cast it off as a trend—something that would die with time, since only college students could use it. Now, Facebook is a misinformation tool that can sway elections, the company itself so powerful that many U.S. policymakers argue that it should be regulated by the government or broken up. And Facebook isn't the only one.

Through Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, TikTok, and others, humans have created entire worlds and different realities on the internet. Nearly 15 years of social media have been integrated into our lives, and a whole generation's childhood. Now, Millennials and Gen Xers are raising the first generation of children whose entire lives have been subsumed by and through social media. Some of them have, with their parent's behest, used social media since they were children; others have watched their parents transfixed by the medium. Their middle and high school lives have been mediated through the algorithms of tech corporations that have the ability to moderate and curate mass culture. 

Boomers were the first generation to be raised with phones and televisions completely normalized in their day-to-day lives. The same can be said for the youngest generation and social media. And no one is entirely sure yet what kinds of psychological and social effects this shift will have.

But the lack of clear answers stems from the nuances of the problem. Psychologists and pediatricians don't know exactly how social media and screen time integrated into childhood affects how children become functioning adults. But what we do know is that children and teens are spending a tremendous amount of their time on social media. In 2018, a Pew Research Center survey of nearly 750 13- to 17-year-olds found that 45 percent are online almost constantly, and 97 percent use a social media platform — and that was before a pandemic.

"I think we still don't have good long-term data on how exposure to social media and smartphones and being digital natives is affecting children as they get older," said Erin Vogel, PhD, a social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. "But I think we'll have a better idea of the long-term effects over the next decade or so."

Dr. Nusheen Ameenuddin, chair of The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Mayo Clinic, agreed that there are "knowns" and "unknowns" right now. That fact that there are so many unknowns, Ameenuddin said, is "absolutely" a concern for the pediatric community.

"We do know that if kids are spending a ton of time looking at a screen, it's not really good for maintaining physical health because it's a sedentary habit, and they are being exposed to ads that are not necessarily for healthy things," Ameenuddin said. "But it really depends on not just how much, but how screens are being used; if they're being used in moderation, and it's a way for kids to relax or to connect with others, that can be a positive thing."

Over the last decade, there's been conflicting data around children and screen time use. Mostly, the negative effects have been reported in the media. One study showed that increased online use is associated with anxiety, depression, obesity and aggression. But then a separate study found that "there was little evidence of an effect of time spent texting or watching TV on risk of anxiety and depression," which suggests there may be "a more complex relationship between screen time and mental health outcomes than simply more screen time increasing risk."

In 2019, a longitudinal study of 2,441 mothers and children found that more screen time per week spent at ages 24 months and 36 months led to poorer performances on behavioral, cognitive and social development screenings tests at 36 months.

Both Ameenuddin and Vogel emphasized that in general there are both "positives" and "negatives" to children growing up with social media platforms and the internet.

"Definitely too much social media time can interfere with sleep — we see that a lot, where kids are connected to their smartphones at night and find it hard to unplug and that can cause issues when it interferes with sleep," Vogel said. "It can also be a positive thing — especially now that we're all more physically distant from each other, being able to connect on social media and other platforms can be a positive thing for kids, too."

As Vogel noted, in this regard, social media and the Internet is a perquisite that is keeping many children from feeling totally disconnected and isolated from friends and family. Indeed, the mental health of children has been a major concern of the medical community during the pandemic, and for many children, online activities have helped with loneliness and the void of in-person school.

At the same time, some specialists fear what the rise in screen time will bring. One psychologist told the New York Times that there's a fear there will be "a period of epic withdrawal" from technology after the pandemic. According to a separate New York Times report, a popular app among American tweens averaged 31.3 million users a day during the first nine months of the pandemic in 2020; an 82 percent increase from the previous year. The rise embodies the hopeless situation many parents are in as many people face job loss, a shift to working from home, and managing their children in some sort of Zoom school.

Clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, who wrote "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age," said the nuance of the effects of screen time and internet usage in children depend on the age of a child, and the wiring of the child.  

"What we know is that social media per se, is based on the attention economy, and is designed to deprive kids of their capacity to engage in the real world by seducing them into being data, and economic sources of remuneration for people who develop apps and certain games," Steiner-Adair said. "And what we do know is that smartphones aren't phones, they're very powerful stimulants to our brains, and they are designed to grab our attention."

Steiner-Adair said that a childhood built on playing fast-paced games, that is not equalized by in-person play, is problematic. Steiner-Adair emphasized though that technology and social media has been "very helpful for kids to connect," during the pandemic.

"For kids up to the age of 10, it is really important that kids play in the 3D world because when the magic of the iPad, which does everything for you, deletes the magic of the playground, that is not a good thing for kids," Steiner-Adair said. "When you build something in real life, it breaks it, falls down, you have to deal with frustration, you develop resilience, you build it up again, you learn how to persevere — you have grit, which is the word that has gotten a lot of popularity right — when you play on the computer, the computer game just restarts automatically."

Steiner-Adair said it's important to think about if kids, when playing, are "developing the traits that we know that are necessary for success in life."

"Perseverance, self-regulation, self-control, impulse control, empathy, active listening resilience, a moral compass," Steiner-Adair said. "Sure, you can say that kids can develop those things online, of course they can, but depending on where they go."

The pandemic has prompted a re-evaluation of children's social media usage — and of screen time in general. That's because this current moment is, clearly, a special case. Ameenuddin said during the pandemic, "mental health is key," and advised that parents shouldn't be too hard on themselves right now.

"If people need to turn off for a while, and if that's a good way to relax, it's okay to do that — it really depends on how you're using devices and technology, as well as how much," Ameenuddin said. "It is good to have some rules that we don't expect to be enforced 100% of the time, but to have kind of guardrails up; I would recommend is that there is a time at night regardless where all devices are turned off, a 'go dark period.'"

Ameenuddin said having a charging place that is outside the child's room, where they have to physically plug in their phone — ideally overnight — is helpful so the children can have "uninterrupted sleep."

But when it comes to what kids are doing on screens, Ameenuddin emphasized that "content matters."

"Families have grandparents who are isolated because of the pandemic or neighbors who are isolated," Ameenuddin said. "Maybe that's actually a good time to use screen time productively to do some good to check in on the neighbor remotely."

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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