When “Friend” Became a Verb: Young People and Social Media

I recently interviewed Harvard professor Dr. Michael Rich (M.D.), founder and leader of the Center of Media and Child Health. Here’s what he told me about young people and social media.

What are some of the problems children have with social media?

One of the big problems kids have is they lose track of time. Of course, the games and social media have that built-in – want to disconnect you from time, because time with your eyeballs is their currency. We also have to add that kids’ brains are still maturing and their pre-frontal cortex, where impulse control, future thinking, and all that executive function lie, is not going to be online until their mid to late 20s.

Also, I think we lost a lot when “friend” became a verb. We friend people willy-nilly and rack up the score, but they’re not the kind of friends that you can cry to in the middle of the night or who you could reach out for a shoulder to lay your head on.

Why do you say “problematic interactive media use” instead of “gaming addiction”?

Gaming is just one of four manifestations we’re seeing of what we’re calling “problematic interactive media use.” That includes games, which is predominately boys, or most prevalent in boys, although we have a fair number of girls; followed by social media, more prevalent in girls; pornography, evenly balanced between the boys and girls; and “information binging” – following the endless rabbit holes of Wikipedia, etc. There are many ways you can get lost in the web essentially eternally. 

Part of the reason we call it problematic interactive media use is it’s not an addiction. It’s overuse of a necessary resource. In the 21st-century the online space, the active media space, is necessary to function at school, function at work, etc. What continues with many of the advocacy groups out there is a call to cut down on screen time, get rid of these devices, block this, do that, rather than taking a step back and saying this is the world we must live in.

How should we approach interactive media use with children?

Instead of looking at these devices as vectors of harm or help, let’s look at these devices as creating an environment we’re living in. Instead of trying to avoid it, how can we use good, unbiased science to understand how to live with it and help our children be healthier, happier, more productive, and kinder to each other?

I think that what we really need to do is approach this much the way we approach nutrition or injury prevention, which is: What are the facts? What are the risk-benefit ratios, and how does it fit into my life? How can I optimize the benefit and minimize the risk?

Are the problems increasing?

I don’t think that the problem is greater than it was before. I think people are noticing it more, in part because the parents are at home with the kids all day. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated and amplified that process immensely, particularly for children, but for all of us who stay at home for long periods of time, and in some cases fighting over bandwidth.

Kids on average are getting 11 hours and 45 minutes of screen content every day and those were data generated before the pandemic. People are desperate to ask what the ideal screen time limits should be for kids. I’ve been saying for years screen time limits are obsolete.

Why do you say that?

What the research shows and clinical experience shows is the best way to approach this is to sit down with your child, really of any age, even as young as five, and think of their 24-hour day as an empty glass that you fill up with this many hours of sleep, a family meal at least once a day (probably the most protective thing you can do for a child’s mental health, as well as their nutrition), put aside time for homework, put aside time for some physical activity, and then see what time is left.

What you’re doing in that case is engaging the young person in making the schedule, giving them some ownership of that schedule. Second, you are being mindful about the finite amount of things that they want to do and allowing them to prioritize and then to manage their time – and God knows we could all do better with time management. This is a way of building those habits early.

What about social media and relationships online?

I think social media can be a great practice area for relationships, a place where you can start to tentatively let people know that you’re interested in them either as a friend or as a romantic partner, try things out, stumble and fall a little bit. But it also is a place where people on either side of that communication can misinterpret something that may have been sent as a flirty tease, but they could take it in a hurtful way.

These principles apply to all of us, though I think kids are in some ways the “canary in the coal mine,” in that they are early adopters of technology. They are facile with technology and are much more adept with it than their parents. Often, are they are going to run into these issues more quickly.

Any final thoughts?

Young people go online in hopes that it will build community, they’ll make connections with people. Because they feel anxious in an in-person social situation, they go to social media to take baby steps, to try to connect with people. 

I think that in our quest for and achievement of near-infinite connectivity, we’ve lost our connectedness in a deep and meaningful way, the way we are connected with family and with close friends. That kind of connectedness is sustaining and meaningful. I think the most important thing is to use social media so that we can be real with each other.


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