Monthly Archives: December 2017

Balancing the scales of social media use – good vs bad

Young people spend a lot of time on social media. They’re also more susceptible to peer pressure, low self-esteem and mental ill-health. A number of studies have found associations between increased social media use and depression, anxiety, sleep problems, eating concerns, and suicide risk.

Certain characteristics of social media may contribute to these negative effects.

Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying has been linked to depression, anxiety, social isolation, and suicide. Compared to “traditional” forms of bullying, cyberbullying can be witnessed by a larger audience, the perpetrator can remain anonymous, and the victim may find it difficult to escape.

Social media platforms have taken steps to address cyberbullying (such as Facebook’s bullying prevention hub), and almost all social media content can be reported to site administrators. But many victims don’t seek support, and research suggests 71 per cent of young people don’t think social media platforms do enough to prevent cyberbullying.

Comparisons to unrealistic portrayals

A common social media activity is viewing others people’s profiles. But these frequently portray edited versions of people’s lives, such as only displaying images in which the person looks attractive or is seen enjoying themselves.

So young people may develop an impression other people’s lives are preferable to their own.

This can be made worse by the social endorsement provided by the number of “likes” a post might get. In one study, nearly one-fifth of respondents said they’d delete a post if it didn’t receive enough “likes”.

Suicide and self-harm content

The potential negative impact of social media on at-risk young people is receiving increasing attention. Risks identified include the potential for contagion or copycat events; sharing information about suicide methods; encouragement to engage in suicidal behaviour; and the normalisation of suicide-related behaviour as an acceptable coping mechanism.

Some benefits

There are also significant potential benefits social media can provide. It can create a sense of community, and facilitate the support from friends. It can encourage people to seek help and share information and resources. More frequent social media use has been associated with improved ability to share and understand the feelings of others.

The reach, cost-effectiveness, and accessibility of social media means information, support, or treatment can reach people who might not otherwise have easy access. Clinical services are beginning to harness the benefits of social media to augment the care they provide.

Monitoring language used in online posts might also enable tracking and detection of people who may be at risk.

For example, Facebook recently launched “proactive detection” artificial intelligence technology that will scan all posts for patterns of suicidal thoughts, and when necessary send mental health resources to the user or their friends, or contact local first-responders.

But there are ethical implications, which include privacy and duty of care. Social media’s rapidly evolving nature, reach and anonymity make rigorous evaluation of its risks and benefits challenging.

Chicken or egg?

Most studies examining social media and mental health aren’t able to determine whether spending more time on social media leads to depression or anxiety, or if depressed or anxious young people spend more time on social media.

But the way social media is used is important. For example, active (compared to passive) social media use can be beneficial. Although browsing Instagram has been associated with increased depression, talking to others online increases life satisfaction.

And some individuals may be more susceptible to the negative aspects of social media than others. Research suggests personality traits and the level of envy felt towards others online influence whether one will be negatively impacted.

The pathways to mental illness are many and varied, and to suggest mental health problems can be attributed to social media alone would be an over-simplification. But we need to acknowledge the risks and platform administrators, parents, mental health organisations, schools and universities, and young people themselves have a role to play in minimising these risks.

It’s unlikely social media use will decrease in the near future, so we need to manage the risks and harness the potential benefits to improve the mental health of our young people.

 

Original article published by the Conversation as Social media can be bad for youth mental health, but there are ways it can help.” 

By University of Melbourne National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health (Orygen) Senior Research Fellow Jo Robinson and Research Assistants Eleanor Bailey and Sadbh Byrne.

 

Kids digital usage limits need rethinking

Digital guidelines for children have been challenged by new research from Oxford University which has found no consistent link between digital usage limits and children’s wellbeing.

Lead author Oxford Internet Institute’s Dr Andrew Pryzbylski said the findings suggested there was “little or no support for the theory that digital screen use, on its own, is bad for young children’s psychological wellbeing.”

“If anything, our findings suggest the broader family context, how parents set rules about digital screen time, and if they’re actively engaged in exploring the digital world together – are more important than raw screen time,” Dr Pryzbylski said.

“Future research should focus on how using digital devices with parents or care-givers and turning it into a social time can affect children’s psychological wellbeing, curiosity and the bonds with the caregiver involved.”

Researchers used the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) guidelines of one to two hours per day of digital use in childhood as the basis for their study which involved more than 20,000 parent interviews during one month to measure key criteria such as relationships with caregivers, emotional resilience and curiosity.

The study, published in Child Development, could not find a consistent correlation between usage limits and wellbeing.

The authors concluded the AAP guidelines were based on “out-of-date research” which was conducted prior to technology becoming an everyday requirement.

“As a result of this time lapse, they are becoming increasingly difficult to justify and implement,” Dr Pryzbylski said.

“Given we can’t put the digital genie back in the bottle, it’s incumbent on researchers to conduct rigorous, up-to-date research that identifies mechanisms by and the extent to which screen-time exposure might affect children.”

“… current recommendations may need to be re-evaluated and given additional consideration before we can confidently recommend that these digital screen-time limits are good for young children’s mental health and wellbeing.”

Teaching preschoolers internet safety

Fifteen years ago, parents and caregivers did not have to worry about teaching pre-school aged children about internet safety. A new report prepared for the Children’s Commissioner of England suggests this time has passed.

Children now live in a digital age, which means internet access is a daily part of life for many young children around the world.

Touchscreen technologies have changed how accessible the internet is for very young children, particularly between the ages of four and five. It’s now quicker and easier to connect to the internet using these technologies, as they don’t require the same level of fine motor and literacy skills used to navigate a mouse and keyboard.

More recently, the Internet of Things has become widespread. The Internet of Things uses small chips embedded in everyday items, including children’s toys, to communicate information to the net. Children’s dolls, teddy bears and figurines can record their play and upload this information as data to the web. This can occur without children’s consent because they wouldn’t be aware they’re generating data.

The three main risks

Internet safety addresses three main risks faced by children online. These are contact, conduct and content risks:

  • contact risks involve children talking to unknown people on the internet. Contact risks also include the harvesting of children’s data, such as recording their activity on an online game
  • conduct risks are about behaving respectfully online and learning to manage digital footprints
  • content risks are concerned with the type of material children view and consume when accessing the internet.

For pre-school aged children, content risks include accidentally viewing inappropriate content such as pornography. Content also considers the quality of material made available to children. How people are represented in society is mirrored back to children through the media they consume. Quality content for young children has been a concern of the Australian Council on Children and the Media for many years.

Contact risks are most likely to occur for pre-school aged children in the form of pop-ups. Children of this age can also be active in virtual worlds, such as Pocoyo World or Club Penguin, where they can engage with other members. Children may not always know the members they are playing with in these worlds.

Conduct involves learning how to be respectful online. Parents can model good conduct behaviours to their children by always asking permission to take photos before posting to social media.

Children as young as four are now online

Internet safety in early childhood is a new area of research because, until now, children as young as four weren’t able to easily access the internet.

A recent study conducted with 70 four-year old children examined what children understand about the internet and being safe online. In this study, only 40 per cent of children were able to describe the internet. This was despite all of the children having access to internet at home, predominately through touchscreen technologies.

Children’s understandings of the internet were associated with their experiences going online and using technologies with their families. They defined the internet as being “in the iPad” or something they used “in the lounge room” to “play games”.

Children were also aware the internet “was used by Mummy for her work” or “by my big sister for her emails”. Some 73 per cent of the children said they would tell someone their address on the internet. And 70 per cent said they would also tell someone how old they were. A further 89 per cent of children indicated they would click on a pop-up even if they did not know what the pop-up was about.

Parenting young children for internet safety

Because children face content, contact and conduct risks online, they require a basic understanding of the internet. The most important thing parents can teach their children about internet safety is that “the internet” means a network of technologies that can “talk” to each other.

This is like teaching children to be sun smart. First, we explain the sun can harm our skin. Next we teach children to wear a hat, a long-sleeved shirt and sunscreen to protect themselves.

For internet safety, we should first explain the internet uses many technologies that share information created and collected by lots of people. Then we can teach our children how to protect themselves online. Some things to teach your child are:

  • seek adult help when you encounter a pop-up
  • only use adult approved sources for content
  • don’t share personal information online
  • try to be near an adult when using a device
  • only click on apps and tabs a parent or caregiver has set up for you.

The internet forms a large part of daily life for many young children. From watching their favourite YouTube clips, to playing games, to talking with a long-distance relative over video-conferencing, being online is not much different to a young child than being offline. Being safe in both spaces is possible with adult support.

Original article published by the Conversation.

By Australian Catholic University Education Professor Susan Edwards

 

Bedtime routine key to best start

What happens in the early years of a person’s life has a profound effect on how they fare later on. Thousands of research papers – many of them using the rich data in the British Birth Cohort studies – have shown that children who get a poor start in life are much more likely to experience difficulties as adults; whether that’s to do with poor health, or their ability to enjoy work and family life.

Ensuring that children get enough sleep is one of a number of ways to get them off to the best possible start in life. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that toddlers should get roughly 11 to 14 hours of sleep every day. For children aged three to five years, the recommendation is ten to 13 hours, or nine to 11 hours for children once they’re at primary school.

But the latest research carried out by our team at UCL’s International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, shows that it’s not just the amount of sleep a child gets which matters. After digging into the data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) – which has followed the lives of some 20,000 children since the turn of the century – we found that having a regular bedtime also affects how they get on at home and at school, throughout the first decade of their lives.

The ‘jet lag’ effect

To begin with, we looked at the relationship between regular and irregular bedtimes, and how the children got on in a range of cognitive tests. Parents who took part in the MCS were asked whether their children went to bed at a regular time on weekdays. Those who answered “always” or “usually” were put in the regular bedtime group, while those who answered “sometimes” or “never” were put in the irregular bedtime group.

The results were striking. Children with irregular bedtimes had lower scores on maths, reading and spatial awareness tests. In fact, the time that children went to bed had little or no effect on their basic number skills, or their ability to work with shapes. But having no set bedtime was linked to lower scores, especially for three-year-olds. The greatest dip in test results was seen in girls who had no set bedtime throughout their early life.

At the heart of this phenomenon is the circadian rhythm – the internal body clock, which tells you when it’s time to sleep and wake up.

If I travel from London to New York, I’m likely to be slightly ragged when I arrive, because jet lag is going to affect my cognitive abilities, appetite and emotions. If I bring one of my children with me, and I want them to do well at a maths test having just jumped across time zones, they will struggle even more than I will. If we think of the body is an instrument, then a child’s body is more prone to getting out of tune.

The same thing happens when children go to bed at 8pm one night, 10pm the next and 7pm another .  Scientists sometimes call this the “social jet lag effect”. Without ever getting on a plane, a child’s bodily systems get shuffled through different time zones, and their circadian rhythms and hormonal systems take a hit as a result.

Best behaviour

As well as enhancing a child’s intellectual development, we found that regular bedtimes can also improve their behaviour.

At age seven, according to parents and teachers, children in the MCS who had irregular bedtimes were considerably more likely to have behavioural problems than their peers who had a regular bedtime. The more frequently a child had been able to go to bed at different times each night, the worse his or her behavioural problems were. In other words, the effects appeared to accumulate throughout childhood.

But we did find an important piece of good news, too: those negative effects on behaviour appeared to be reversible. Children who switched to having a regular bedtime showed improvements in their behaviour. This shows that it’s never too late to help children back onto a positive path, and a small change could make a big difference to how well they get on.

But of course, the reverse was also true: the behaviour of children who switched from a regular to an irregular bedtime got worse.

A weighty problem

In a follow-up study, which looked at the impact of routines (including bedtimes) on obesity, we reported that children with irregular bedtimes were more likely to be overweight, and have lower self-esteem and satisfaction with their bodies.

In fact, of all the routines we studied, an inconsistent bedtime was most strongly associated with the risk of obesity. This supports other recent findings, which show that young children who skipped breakfast and went to bed at irregular times were more likely to be obese at age 11. Even children who “usually” had a regular bedtime were 20 per cent more likely to be obese than those who “always” went to bed at around the same time.

Clearly, the evidence shows that a regular bedtime really matters when it comes to children’s health and development, throughout that crucial first decade of their lives. Including these findings alongside recommended hours of sleep in advice for all those caring for young children could make a real difference, by helping protect children from “social jet lag” and getting them off to a flying start instead.

Original article published by the Conversation “Giving children regular bedtimes stops them getting ‘jetlag'”

By University College London Professor Yvonne Kelly