Anxious Kids

Latest News Thursday, 20 Feb 2020

I am reading Anxious Kids – how children can turn their anxiety into resilience by Michael Gross and Dr Jodi Richardson. (Each week you can click on an Insights by many authors from Gross’ Parenting Ideas). 

One section deals with the potential risks of social media and as you may guess, I am not a big fan of social media. It has its purpose for sure and some manage it quite well despite the tech industry designing the devices that highjack our brains. I am summarising the authors’ work below and borrowing directly from their book. Many people simply don’t have time to buy the book and read it so it may be easier for me to summarise sections I think will be of interest.
What are these risks the authors identify in terms of using social media?

1. Wired for Comparison – humans are wired to compare themselves to others. Anthropologically, those humans who were able to compare in the group were better able to meet social expectations. Being seen to be an important group member sealed your social capital and hence, you were unlikely to be abandoned. Not to measure up in this way sent a signal to the brain’s amygdala of imminent danger. The amygdala’s role in protecting us from danger is what underlies anxiety. Those who were wired to compare were likely to survive with genetic inheritance assured. The internet now makes comparison to others inevitable. You know the story – one open’s a social media platform to see someone enjoying a holiday with friends while you are alone in Sydney. Unknowingly, young people endlessly compare when they are on social media. Hence, they measure their real life against the glossy highlights of friends. 

2. FOMO – fear of missing out – in days gone by, kids may not have even known about the party they weren’t invited to. Or they may have heard about it later in the week and being more able to brush this off as being an event just about out of memory. Now, postings of the party are evident before the conclusion exacerbating the propensity for comparison which in turn leaves the child(ren) feeling isolated and excluded. Unlike conventional programs that have an ending, social media platforms are a constant scroll of stimulation and pseudo-connection. It drives young kids to stay connected for fear of being excluded (or missing out – hence the FOMO). As they scroll they are turning on the brain’s dopamine reward chemicals. This then become a vicious cycle as the kids constantly stay connected. 

3. Always connected but never more lonely - you know the adage – it takes a village to raise a child. And it does so because ‘a child has friends to play with, to learn from, to build relationship skills with, to talk to, to solve problems with, to climb trees with, to create games with and to have fun with’. Screens have interrupted this natural level of engagement (which people of my generation experienced endlessly at a young age). They are constantly connected to each other through technology but many have never been so lonely. Ironically, they barely use the phones to make calls – preferring to text. Common Sense Media surveys indicated that tweens (8-12 years) and teens (13-18 years) had the following usage times. For tweens it was 4.5 hours average a day and for teens 6.5 hours screen time (which did not include using media for school time). Girls spent more time ‘connecting’ in this way and boys spent more time gaming. Only face to face connection works at a deeper level where they learn from facial cues, tone of voice, body language and avoid the pitfalls in misinterpreted emojis

4. Other screen factors that could be playing a role in anxiety – communicating and posting involves anticipation and disappointment and kids will so often misinterpret text messages without all the other human to human communication cues. They are distracted as they are thinking about the replies and asking questions such as “why hasn’t he responded yet?” / why is everyone doing this and I am not?” etc. 

5. The need to be liked – this comes by way of ‘validation’ through likes/dislikes. Not getting sufficient likes can make one anxious and being on the receiving end of cyberbullying truly raises the anxiety levels. In times gone by, one could physically escape the bullying. Nowadays, it is ever-present on social media. Bullies can use pseudonyms which raises anxiety further.

6. The authors also point out that with excessive use, many young people miss out on activities that boost their mental health and wellbeing such as spending time together as a family, hanging out with friends, playing sport, playing at the park, beach fun, drawing etc. 

7. However, it's not all doom and gloom. As part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle there can be good that comes from spending time on devices when young people are smart about privacy and about digital use. There are many benefits for young people when they connect with friends on social media networking sites including Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and gaming sites. The online world is a place for young people to ‘hang out’ with their friends after school and on weekends. Used wisely, it serves to strengthen their identity and friendships. At the same time young people have a great time together online by sending funny memes, making videos or using amusing filters on their selfies. 

They build their social skills through text-based banter, exchanges on social apps and comments left on social media posts. Social media also offers an opportunity for a young person who feels isolated and lonely to connect with and feel part of a community or group. The Internet also presents opportunities for young people to better understand and take action on global issues such as (for example) climate change or accumulation of plastic waste on their local beach. The internet is a great resource for a young person who is experiencing anxiety and wants to understand more about it. It is a confidential and anonymous place where answers to questions from good mental health providers such as Beyond Blue and Reach Out are easily found. There are support services online, trusted sources of information and useful programmes such as the Brave program, Mood Gym and Gross’ own Parenting Anxious Kids course.

It really comes down to how one uses social media and placing limits around a child’s use. If this can be achieved then it may not contribute to the levels of anxiety that it has. 

Byline: Phil Roberts, Principal Mount Sinai College

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