Dr Larry Rosen, professor of department of psychology at California University tells Sadiqur Rahman about the ways teenagers and children are vulnerable on the social media sites and the ways these can be tackled by parents
An increasing number of children and teenagers are providing false information about themselves to open up accounts in social media sites especially Facebook. Why do you think this is the case? Is it due to peer pressure?
Facebook has become immensely popular around the world. As of now, it has about 1.3 billion members with more than 800 million using it daily. It is not only for children or teenagers or college students, in fact, the fastest growing groups are older people who want to connect with their family members.
I do not think that there is any peer pressure at all. Rather there is an interest and need to connect to others. As a platform for connecting, to people you are close to or even those that you are not close to, it is a major location.
Most pre-teens that we have interviewed confessed that they are mildly addicted to Facebook. Can such addiction harm their lifestyles in the long run?
During our research, we found that Facebook as well as other social media sites are a combination of addiction and obsession. The two types are different, affecting the brains differently.
An addiction is where your brain desires pleasure and it seeks out activities that increase the flow of chemicals in the brain that makes us feel good like Dopamine and Serotonin.
Obsession is an anxiety-based disorder. In this case, your brain has chemicals such as Cortisol that stress you and make you anxious. You need to do an activity to remove these chemicals.
Facebook, and other social media sites, provides a bit of pleasure. It makes some people feel good by keeping tough while also becoming an obsession as some people feel that they have to keep up or they may be missing out on something important. Hence they frequent social media sites to reduce their anxiety. Often this is called FOMO (Fear of Missing out).
During our research, we found that the use of most communication technologies in the modern day is probably two-thirds out of anxiety in needing to keep up and a third out of a need for pleasure and enjoyment.
Most pre-teens and teenagers are enthusiastic to put their selfies and photos on Facebook. As most know little about ‘privacy options’, even complete strangers can access these pictures. Under such circumstances, how susceptible are pre-teens or teens in accepting friend requests from complete strangers?
An important part of the brains of people, under the age of mid-20s, are not complete. This is called the pre-frontal cortex and until someone reaches their mid-twenties, their nerve cells are not completely coated in an important material that helps them to communicate. Since this area in the front of the brain acts as the ‘executive controller’, it is responsible for our attention, decision making, impulse control and more.
This is why younger people make poor, impulsive decisions such as posting selfies that may get them into trouble. In this case, I always recommend that parents make sure that their children do not post photos without their permission. Parents should also keep an eye on their children’s behaviour in any social media environment that includes gaming as well.
We have read how ‘child abuse’ is being battled in the Western countries. One of the many arenas where the battle is fought is on the internet. Do you feel that South Asian countries should adopt similar measures to safeguard pre-teens and teenagers on the internet?
The internet has always been painted as a scary place where predators are waiting for children, who are easy preys. This is a major exaggeration.
Research does show that about one child or teenager in 10 has been approached by someone with a sexual intent or in an attempt to bully them. But these are people that the person knows, mostly peers.
However, again, it is important for parents to monitor their children and teenagers on social media as it is possible for them to be emotionally harmed by things that they see or words that are directed at them.
What kind of measures can parents take?
When i talk to parent groups i introduce my T.A.L.K model of parenting.
‘T’ stands for trust and this is what parents have to build up with their children. They should monitor what they are doing but only when the child is present and not surreptitiously. When children are online, it is best to have them use the computer in a public location in the home and for the parents to observe what they are doing. Rules should be established and discussed as to how long the child can use the computer and for what purposes.
‘A’ is for assess and this is where parents watch what their children are doing on the computer (and of course other devices) and ask them about the websites they visit, the games they play, etc.
‘l’ is for learn and this means that parents have to familiarise themselves with the technology and websites and games that their children use. They do not have to become experts but they should ask their children to show them anything that they are doing online so they can understand it. Also talking to other parents about what their children are doing is a good way to learn.
Finally ‘K’ stands for communicate (I know that it starts with a ‘c’ and not a ‘k’ but the ‘k’ works better). Parents should have weekly meetings with their children about what they are doing with their technology and any concerns that they have.
If trust is already prevalent, then the meetings are short – no longer than 15 minutes – and mostly the parents ask the kids what they are doing and what they like and then listen carefully for any possible problems. As the children get older, the parents can ask more directed questions such as ‘I have heard about cyberbullying and I wonder if you know anyone who has been bullied? What happened and how did they feel?’
Those types of questions invite the child to talk about these issues but not in reference to them but to their friends which makes them feel safe.