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More Internet Alarmism. Why, NPR?
I'm not angry, I'm disappointed.
This article alludes to the dopamine-addiction bunk that is currently circulating, while only talking to one self-proclaimed expert. Now, no shade to self-proclaimed experts; the lived experience of working with kids is valid. But this quote…
"I have talked to hundreds of parents," Cherkin explains, "and no one has ever said to me, 'I wish I gave my kid a phone earlier or I wish I'd given them social media access sooner. Never."
…is the anecdotal report of an entrepreneur who sells books and consults parents who are scared of screens for kids—not an evidence-based claim. And that’s fine. But as a scholar AND a self-proclaimed expert, I want both. I want balanced evidence, Mary, not hyperbole.
While working on my dissertation (on the psychology of online aggression), I read a ton of peer-reviewed literature on bullying, cyberbullying, and other forms of online aggression. I also conducted my own research, which was subsequently published. When attending a Cyberpsychology conference in the UK where I presented my research, I went to a keynote by a prominent scholar involved in classifying gaming addiction as a diagnosis. She pointed out that to qualify as a behavioral addiction, the behavior has to have several, long-term, far-reaching effects. It must negatively impact relationships, be difficult or impossible to quit without treatment, and have a significant, burdensome, financial cost. You also have to be an adult.
Kids, adolescents, and teens can’t be diagnosed with things like behavioral addictions, or narcissism because they are predicated on being fully-formed adults. Can they have problematic attachments to stuff or behaviors? Yes! Does it make them addicts? No! Addiction-like behavior is not addiction.
The UK has fairly strong laws against online violence and violent speech (unlike the US). One of the problems discussed at the conference was that the standards law enforcement applies to adults may not work for kids. If your boss texts you that you must send him naked pics or he’ll fire you, that’s rightfully illegal. But if a bunch of kids are shit-talking while playing a video game and one says, “I’m going to kill you,” it’s not. So at the time, they were trying to figure out how to make the laws more refined so people causing real harm faced legal consequences, but shit-talking kids didn’t get hauled off to jail.
We don’t have this distinction in the US because we have virtually no consequences for online violence, hate speech, and threats. We expect the companies to police the content on their sites (because that works sooo well), but we barely even enforce the laws prohibiting direct threats of violence online.
This means that as parents, we carry most of the burden of keeping our kids safe online. I disagree with the expert in the NPR article. I don’t think playing keep away with the main conduit of peer communication during important developmental years is the answer.
Tweens and teens are not hormone-addled children or immature adults. They are in distinctive developmental phases, where forming strong bonds with peers, learning to navigate conflict and stress in relationships, and forming identity are all happening. Like it or not, smartphones are one of the ways they form and maintain those relationships. My best friend and I talked on our shitty plastic wall phones for hours when we were 13, and my kid video chats with the kids they met at improve camp and they game and talk shit.
None of this precludes my kid from developing; it aids it. While having access to a smartphone, my kid also gets good grades, is active in household maintenance, forming friendships, engages in hobbies, and spends time outdoors.
Does this mean I have no rules around screens? Nope. Plenty of rules. I have to approve all the apps they download. I shut off all their apps at 11 pm and they have to ask for approval for any more time. They don’t have Snapchat. DO NOT LET YOUR KIDS HAVE SNAPCHAT. EVER. They might as well call it Predators-R-Us. Yes, please give your kids an app that encourages them to send pictures to randos that are then wiped from the server, so if said rando is trying to abduct or assault them there’s no evidence. WTF.
Snapchat sucks. Not everything sucks. I’ve gone from letting my kid access things like TikTok and YouTube through my account only, so I can see what they watch, to letting them have their own (correctly aged) account that they must also let me follow. They must let me access their phone if I ask them to. They can’t buy anything online without my approval; if they did, they’d be grounded for life.
By the time your kid is old enough to work around your firewall, you should have explained to them in detail that that butt or boob or dick pic may follow them forever and affect their ability to get a job or run for office. Do you know who the most restrained internet users are in my world? My college students, ages 18-22. They know. People my age and older are mouthing off about everything on the internet but the young adults keep it very neutral. They had access to social media apps before their parents could moderate them, and they did something stupid and learned.
I’ll say this again in many ways, but it comes down to a few things.
Listen to your kids. Let them argue for what they want and why, and then research it before you say yes or no.
Be aware of age ratings. They are the bare minimum. If your 9-year-old wants an innocuous-looking game that rates as 18+, it’s because it runs ads with shady shit in it. Say no.
There are some great websites for understanding the risks of games, movies, tv shows, etc.
Get to know developmental stages and apply them to what your kid might be ready for. Stages are biological, psychosocial, and cultural.
I don’t totally disagree with the NPR article or the expert they talk to. There is a lot of freaky shit on the internet. I don’t want my kid watching porn. They also don’t want to watch it, but I will do my best to set up their devices so it’s blocked either way. The problem is that the article conflates a bunch of separate things. You don’t have to give your kid access to online money. You can block explicit material. You can choose what platforms they use based on age and maturity, and adjust it as they age.
My kid is not interested in performing gender, so I don’t worry much about them following crappy female influencers on stupid diets or wearing stupid clothes. If they were more femme or masc, I would talk to them more about how gender norms can be toxic and watch for that stuff. You have to adjust based on your kid’s personality and maturity. If you don’t know what their brain is doing at a certain age, you can’t make good decisions about how much freedom or restriction they should have. Keep the lines of communication open, don’t be quick to judge, and LISTEN.
Just not to crappy alarmist clickbait on how technology is melting kids’ brains and addicting them to a hormone we all naturally produce for VERY GOOD REASONS.