Childhood in the digital age
Childhood in the digital age

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1.1 Social media: positive, negative or just different?

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Figure 1 Children’s social lives have always taken shape through communication.

In the previous section you saw a range of views on the positive and negative aspects of social networks and social media.

Activity 1

Read the blog post ‘The effects of social media on children’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Based on what you read, reflect on children’s contemporary experiences of communication and what impact these might have. Think about the following questions:

  • What would optimists say about children’s engagement with social media?
  • What would pessimists say about children’s engagement with social media?
  • Is technology really the sole cause of positive and negative effects or is it more complicated than that?
  • For example, might different children be influenced in different ways by technology?

You might like to create lists to organise your thoughts. Think about the comments made and organise them into optimistic or pessimistic views of digital communication. Then, try to set out a balanced perspective and discuss this with someone you know.


Optimists (positive aspects)

Digital devices have indeed brought a new dimension to children’s communication. Not only can we bridge distance via emails and forums and social networks, we can also communicate immediately through texts and tweets. We have access to a much wider social community, and this can have implications for children’s social and emotional development.

Perhaps the immediacy and elimination of distance can in fact help children to maintain friendships and strengthen family ties. Parents can gain a deeper insight into their children’s lives, especially as face-to-face communication difficulties increase as children get older. After all, the ‘grumpy teenager’ is not a new phenomenon.

What about shy children? By bridging distance, digital communication can enable them to engage in a wider social environment (Taylor, 2013) and more generally can help children find others with similar hobbies and interests. Digital technology can, it is argued, promote inventiveness and creativity.

Some psychologists even suggest that digital communication might improve emotional connection, implying that children could become more empathetic online compared to in traditional face-to-face contact (Johnson, 2014).

Pessimists (negative aspects)

In expanding their social community, children are exposed to a wider range of people, material and risks. The EU Kids Online survey found that many children had experienced cyberbullying, trolling and sexting, with 12 per cent of 9–16-year-olds encountering upsetting and inappropriate images (Livingstone et al., 2014, p. 6). Critics of the use of digital technology by children warn that children may be too naive and not yet emotionally and socially developed enough to be able to deal effectively with such risk.

As children’s level of maturity and judgement is still developing, they are more susceptible to marketing, inappropriate social interaction, so-called addiction to online activity (games, texting, messaging) and identity theft through revealing too much information online.

Some research has shown that playing violent video games can lead to more aggressive behaviour. However, a lot of the research is unclear about the ‘direction of causality’. Might it be that children who are naturally more aggressive are attracted to more violent video games and will be more strongly affected by them?

Research also suggests that children who engage in more digital social networking are more narcissistic. But similarly, perhaps children who are naturally more narcissistic are attracted to social networking and more sensitive to the experience?

Think too about the time frame of this sort of research. Are the effects of technology causing long-term changes? Researchers tend to test children immediately after they have engaged with the technology. Might effects be strongest then, but fade over time?

If you are interested, you could read Taylor, 2013 in full.

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Figure 2 Are children’s online social connections always a good thing?

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