Smart phones and Social Media, What’s the Real Harm?

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There is a debate on whether or not parents should allow their children to have a smart phone and social media. One side says that adolescents are not mature enough to handle the responsibility of a device that gives them access to the entire world. The other side argues that they are just children, do they even know how to use a phone for all it is worth, not to mention everyone has a smart phone and social media, I don't want my child to be left out

While both sides make compelling arguments, one side is heavily opinion based and more concerned with social status, and the other side is thinking about the facts and potential long-term harm these things will have on their child. So, what is the harm? Are we really putting our children in danger, without being aware? The answer is yes! There are some significant dangers that smartphones and social media bring to our children. Let’s start with the dangers of the smartphone. Aside from the 24/7 access to the internet, there is a danger with children having excessive amounts of screen time. Studies show that the average child spends more than 7 hours a day on a screen. That is almost the amount of time as the average full-time job. 

How does this affect our children?

According to multiple studies excessive screen time can lead to the following issues in brain development: shrinking of gray matter, lower integrity of white matter, thinning of the cortical, weakened cognitive functioning, and decreased dopamine functioning.  Now, if you are like me you are not a psychology major, so let me break down what all of this means. 

  • Shrinking of Gray Matter:

Gray matter is where the “processing" of the brain occurs.  The frontal lobe which primarily is the planning, organizing, prioritizing, and impulse control center of the brain is mainly affected by this. In short, too much screen time can affect the part of the brain that helps our children sort through pros and cons, make healthy decisions, and stick to their boundaries. 

  • Lower Integrity of White Matter:

This affects the communication within the brain, affecting the areas of the brain dealing with higher cognitive functioning (abstract thinking, planning, impulse control, inhibition, etc.) and the lower cognitive functions (emotions, survival, etc). Loss of the integrity of white matter could also slow down the connections from the brain to the body. 

  • Thinning of the Cortical:

This primarily affects the frontal lobe which we have already discussed is the house for all major decision making and abstract thinking (think empathy, cause and effect, etc.)

  • Weakened Cognitive Functioning:

Children exposed to too much screen time could have trouble processing information and become more impulsive, more sensitive to receiving rewards and less sensitive to experiencing loss.  They may also experience poor task performance.

  • Decreased Dopamine Functioning:

Children with excessive screen time may long for, or crave, time on their screens. They may also experience a loss of dopamine receptors and transporters which means it will take more to "satisfy” their desires. 

Crazy right?!  Another danger of the smartphone is the 24/7 access to the internet that it gives children, which in turn gives them access to things like pornography, social media, chat rooms, etc. There has been a proliferation of pornography since the invention of the smart phone. Because of the introduction of the smart phone, we saw an increase of exposure of pornography to children under the age of thirteen. In 2008, 14% of children under the age of thirteen had been exposed to pornography.  By 2011, 49% had been exposed. Pornography is extremely dangerous and addictive.  Studies are still being done proving the far reaching negative effects it has on a person’s brain and body, and how it affects their relationships. 

As mentioned before having 24/7 access to social media is a danger of the smart phone. But why?

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What is the harm of social media?

Some of the dangers of social media include: cyber bulling, it's not reality, easy access to total strangers, sexual predators, sexting, sextortion and even addiction. 

  • Cyber Bulling:

In the past, when someone was being bullied at school, once they got home they got a break from the bully.  Now the bully can keep bullying them via social media.  There is not a break.  We have seen an increase in middle school depression and suicide because of this. 

  • It's Not Reality:

People pretend to be whoever they want to be online. There is not an accurate picture of what someone’s life is actually like.  Because of this, children compare their lives to the “lives” they see online. This can lower children’s self esteem and lead to depression.

  • Easy Access to Total Strangers:

Because people can pretend to be whoever they want to be online, children can be talking to someone they think is their age but is actually a sexual predator. 

  • Sexting:

This is the sending and RECEIVING of sexually explicit images and messages. Not only is this a danger for children because of the dangers of pornography, but sexting is also a criminal offense, even if both offenders are minors. 

  • Sextortion:

This is when someone threatens to expose sensitive material such as sexually explicit pictures, videos, or messages to someone to provide sexual pictures, sexual acts, or money. It is a form of blackmail with dangerous consequences. 

  • Addiction

Addiction is a serious danger of excessive use of both pornography AND social media. Why is addiction a concern? How does it occur? Well, the addiction pattern occurs very similarly as it does with drugs. Let’s start with social media for example: teenager makes a post on social media. She gets a notification that someone liked her post. That notification sends a rush of dopamine throughout her brain. So, what happens then? She keeps checking her account for more notifications, she keeps making more posts to get more likes. She does whatever it takes to get that same rush of dopamine again. Pornography addiction occurs in a very similar way, but with far worse consequences. When first exposed to pornography or sensual images, the brain releases that rush of dopamine. Each time the brain sees a similar image the amount of dopamine release is less and less. This causes the person to seek out different or more novel stimuli to reach that same high. Addiction has now set in.

While this is not an extensive list of the dangers of the smartphone and social media, I hope it is enough to get you thinking before handing these things over to your children, and prepares you to set boundaries in place to protect them. We at DCO want to be a resource for all of our readers, especially our parents, on how to protect our teens within the four walls of your home. We will be releasing blog posts regularly on how to help protect our children against these dangers and assist them in setting and keeping appropriate boundaries.

Sources: Psychology Today // Truth About Porn
 

AUTHOR: 

Zoie is our TN Education Specialist and  Alabama Project Manager since 2016. She is Sexual Risk Avoidance Specialist (SRAS) certified and graduated from the University of Alabama with two degrees: Early Childhood Education and Family Studies. She lives in Florence, AL with her wonderful husband, Dakota, and their cute dachshund, Obi. Zoie is enthusiastic about impacting the lives of students and believes in the difference DCO is making in our world today!

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