Just because I refer to research does not mean I think it’s fully proven. Research always needs to be repeated and ideally be part of a meta-study before we should firmly rely on it. However, these resources are as robust as possible and fit what we know from elsewhere. We can’t always afford to wait for “proof” before putting into practice what feel like sensible policies. My book The Teenage Guide to Life Online brings it all together and explains the nuances honestly.
My core belief – which I back up with logic, science and robust argument – is that banning phones or other devices is not generally the answer. Learning to self-regulate and use them well is the answer. And for that we first have to understand why we should, not by listening to inflammatory media headlines but by properly understanding what’s going on.
I give talks on this subject, as well as many other aspects of well-being for teenagers and adults. Do see the Speaking section of my site.
NB I know that “social media” should be plural but I have given up and will use it as though it is singular… However, I’m a bit inconsistent and in speech I tend to slip into correct plural usage.
Your best shortcuts – including my Life Online Parent Pack
I created the free Life Online Parent Pack for parents everywhere, to help you understand as quickly and well as possible what the issues, science and strategies are. Download it here: Life Online Parent Pack.
Documents are numbered 1-6 and “LOPP” stands for Life Online Parent Pack:
- “INTRODUCTION_LOPP” – contains important general points – read it first. It also contains a link to a Powerpoint presentation I have created for you.
- “RESOURCES_LOPP” – SCIENCE OF SCREENS, SMARTPHONES AND SOCIAL MEDIA – a document listing many references to research, books, reports and articles, broken down into topics. (This is everything that follows below this list, so I’ve not provided a separate download.)
- “TIPS_SCREENTIME” – an A4 sheet of tips for adults and young people. You can print or share this in any way you like*.
- “PLEDGE_LOPP”, an ONLINE WELL-BEING PLEDGE to discuss with your family. When you’ve talked it through, draw up your own pledge, which might be the same or different.
- “PCARD_LifeOnline” – a postcard with four of the best tips I have – you can replicate this in any way you like: print it, share it, embed it in a Powerpoint* etc.
- “PCARD_FLOURISH” – I’ve added a FLOURISH card, with core principles from my book, Positively Teenage. Positively Teenage contains advice about healthy online and offline living, so it’s relevant.
If you choose nothing else, do use this A4 sheet of tips: TIPS_SCREENTIME.
A Powerpoint just for you (included in pack)
This is a basic Powerpoint presentation for you to look at. (NB In my talks, I cover the same topics but my talks obviously go into much more detail and cover more. This is NOT a duplication of the presentations I do in schools – I created it especially to make sense without my presence.) See my slideshare page here and find the presentation called Life Online Parent Pack Powerpoint.
My own articles
- How and why are our screens so addictive?
- Six steps to online well-being
- Digital sunset – a great idea for well-being and sleep
- Social media use and self-esteem – a reply to a mother
- Is social media affecting my GCSEs?
- Authoritative digital parenting
All my articles in the Life Online category: https://www.nicolamorgan.com/category/life-online/
My free teaching notes for my book
Three other top online resources
- An excellent guide for parents to help their child build positive friendships and connections online: https://parentinfo.org/article/online-friendships-a-parents-guide
- http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/parenting4digitalfuture/ – really good blog from the LSE, very detailed, balanced and science-based. There’s a weekly newsletter bringing up-to-date resources.
- A very useful Parent’s Guide to Online Safety and Security, from Best VPN. I really like this: it’s split into different headings for different ages and it’s very practical and solid.
Social media, hyper-connectivity, mental health and wellbeing
First, some books
Some of these books hold a one-sided position. Even when authors are experienced researchers, they may fall into the trap of selecting only what supports their view. So, caution!
- It’s Complicated – The Social Lives Of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd (US- based; more positive than the others)
- Sex, Likes And Social Media: Talking To Our Teens In The Digital Age by Allison Havey and Deana Puccio (Mostly re US university students)
- The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behaviour Changes Online by Mary Aiken (On the catastrophizing side)
- Igen: Why Today’s Super-connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared For Adulthood by Jean M Twenge (catastrophizing)
- The Happiness Effect: How Social Media Is Driving A Generation To Appear Perfect At Any Cost by Donna Freitas – effect of social media on wellbeing (Mostly re US university students)
“Online and At Risk” from SciamMind 2016. It shows how/why:
- The rise of social media has made us the most connected society to date but coincided with apparent decline in mental health.
- Social media use is proving addictive for some people, and this new digital way of connecting may not satisfy our deep-seated need for true human contact.
- Teens may be most vulnerable to developing hypertexting habits and Facebook depression
“Media Use, Face-to-Face communication, media multi-tasking and social wellbeing among 8-12-year-old girls” by Pea, Nass, Meheula – more social media/screen usage translates to lower social wellbeing. (NB Effect is very small; more to be done before we can really assert this.)
Brilliant piece by John Lanchester in LRB.
Importance of downtime
From SciamMind, “Why Time Off Makes You a Better Worker”:
Irresistible: Why You Are Addicted To Technology And How To Set Yourself Free by Adam Alter – how and why screens etc are so…irresistible
Glow Kids by Nicholas Kardaris (if you dare) “Digital Heroin” – interview with Kardaris. And http://www.vice.com/read/how-screen-addiction-is-ruining-the-brains-of-children
“Attached to tech and paying a price”, NY Times from 2010 but robust and detailed. Multi-tasking and digital distraction.
Internet “addiction” or “use disorder” – www.nature.com/articles/srep45064 – actually reassuring. Yes, screens can lead to over-use and sometimes this can be classed as addiction, but it’s a softer addiction than substance misuse and more easily dealt with. The research is by Qinghua He and Ofir Turel.
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power Of Talk In A Digital Age by Sherry Turkle (UK-based, tending to be about older teens or young 20s). Turkle in NY Times: “Stop Googling – Let’s Talk”. I think this is a must for parents of teenagers, if you can face being shown that your own phone use may not be helping matters at all!
Research showing how conversation is poorer when a phone is present: “Can you connect with me now?” Przybyliski and Weinstein 2012.
Drop in empathy?
“Changes in dispositional empathy in American college students over time: a meta-analysis” by Sara Konrath, Edward o’Brien et al in 2011. NB From 2011 so the reported drop in empathy “over 20 years and especially the last ten” can hardly be explained by social media use… What about screens? Computers? Politics? Reported here.
“The Meeting Eyes of Love, how empathy is born in us”. Daniel Siegal on empathy from eye contact with caregiver*, cited in article by Mark Matousek:
PEW research on etiquette in social media usage amongst young people.
False info, fake news, echo chambers
Stanford History Education Group, “Evaluating Info: The cornerstone of civic online reasoning”. “When thousands of students respond to dozens of tasks there are endless variations. That was certainly the case in our experience. However, at each level—middle school, high school, and college—these variations paled in comparison to a stunning and dismaying consistency. Overall, young people’s ability to reason about information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.”
And that terrific article by John Lanchester, “You are the product”.
Mental health and self-esteem
It’s easy for you to find headlines that say that social media is ruining self-esteem and is responsible for worse mental health, but I want to point you towards some more balanced, sensible views:
From Parenting for a Digital Future, on the topic of a recent much-publicised Swedish study on self-esteem: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/parenting4digitalfuture/2018/09/19/does-excessive-social-media-use-actually-harm-the-self-esteem-of-young-people/
Again from Parenting for a Digital Future, For Better or Worse – how does social media affect young people’s wellbeing?, a good analysis of a survey of US teenagers showing that although 15% said social media made them feel worse, 27% reported that being on social media made them feel better. There are useful examples of what the young people said, which I think will give you a good insight into the issues to consider.
“The Goldilocks effect” – suggesting that there’s a sweet-spot of having enough but not too much exposure to social media (but note that it hugely depends on what you do with social media, more than how long you spend on it: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2017-01-13-%E2%80%98goldilocks-amount-screen-time%E2%80%99-might-be-good-teenagers%E2%80%99-wellbeing
I’d also suggest that people take less notice of headlines and statistics and more notice of how they actually feel. If you feel that your experiences of using social media do sometimes/often/ever make you feel low, unworthy, anxious and compare yourself negatively with the people you see there, switch off, walk away, do something else.
Teenage brains being affected?
Of course: everything we do affects our brain. Question is whether the changes are negative (maybe) and irreversible (unlikely, as plasticity means our brains change, constantly.) But some changes to young brains may have unwanted long-term consequences. Or not. We don’t know enough, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry. We just need to worry constructively. Video on whether social media is changing teenage brains, from lab of teenage brain expert Sarah Jayne Blakemore: https://sites.google.com/site/blakemorelab/talks/katemills89plus
Screens: concentration, information overload, distraction, brain bandwidth, multi-tasking
The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight In The Age Of Information Overload by Daniel Levitin, on info deluge, concentration (lack of) and multi-tasking (lack of). Levitin has a great article here explaining the brain bandwidth theory I often talk about: “Welcome to the Internet and the information age – 174 newspapers a day”.
“Tiny Distractions Can Double Mistakes”: “Just a three-second distraction, such as glancing at your phone, can divert your attention and double the number of mistakes you make” by Tia Ghose 2013.
Article on Teen Ink, aimed at teenagers, on digital distraction and problems with social media: www.teenink.com/hot_topics/what_matters/article/781313/Digital-Distraction/
“Is continuous partial attention a good thing or a bad thing?” Linda Stone on the phrase she invented, “continuous partial attention”: “Like so many things, in small doses, continuous partial attention can be a very functional behavior. However, in large doses, it contributes to a stressful lifestyle, to operating in crisis management mode, and to a compromised ability to reflect, to make decisions, and to think creatively. In a 24/7, always-on world, continuous partial attention used as our dominant attention mode contributes to a feeling of overwhelm, over-stimulation and to a sense of being unfulfilled. We are so accessible, we’re inaccessible.”
The Science Behind Mental Overload and How to Avoid It by Helena Nelson-Smith.
There’s a working paper here from the University of Zurich about how resisting temptation (for example temptation to click on hyperlinks or follow distracting adverts) has a cognitive cost, risking impaired processing and concentration later.
“Can kids really do their homework and multi-task?” Not as well as adults, apparently:
My post on working while listening to music.
“How Has the Internet Reshaped Human Cognition?” by Kep Kee Loh and Ryota Kanai. Using screens/social media a lot does NOT makes people better at multi-tasking. The abstract: “Throughout our evolutionary history, our cognitive systems have been altered by the advent of technological inventions such as primitive tools, spoken language, writing, and arithmetic systems. Thirty years ago, the Internet surfaced as the latest technological invention poised to deeply reshape human cognition. With its multifaceted affordances, the Internet environment has profoundly transformed our thoughts and behaviors. Growing up with Internet technologies, “Digital Natives” gravitate toward “shallow” information processing behaviors characterized by rapid attention shifting and reduced deliberations. They engage in increased multitasking behaviors that are linked to increased distractibility and poor executive control abilities. Digital natives also exhibit higher prevalence of Internet-related addictive behaviors that reflect altered reward-processing and self-control mechanisms. Recent neuroimaging investigations have suggested associations between these Internet-related cognitive impacts and structural changes in the brain. Against mounting apprehension over the Internet’s consequences on our cognitive systems, several researchers have lamented that these concerns were often exaggerated beyond existing scientific evidence. …, we aim to provide an objective overview ….”.
Positively online – the good news and how to take advantage of it
The Marshmallow Test: Understanding Self-control And How To Master It by Walter Mischel – with strategies for resisting temptation!
Excellent resource for parents from Parenting info: “Digital Resilience: a parent’s guide”
On whether teenagers are lonely (no!) But it’s an example of how often we hear about “teenagers” when the age group being researched is not 13-18, so such reports can be misleading: www.theguardian.com/society/2017/apr/08/teenagers-loneliness-social-media-isolation-parents- attention
Social media addiction may be easier to cure than other addictions: www.nature.com/articles/srep45064
“Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues”. After 5 days away from tech, empathy increased, per research by Uhls, Michikyan, Morris, Garcia, et al. Computers in Human Behavior, 39: 387–392
“Screentime Is NOT Making Kids Moody, Crazy & Lazy” by Grohol et al
“Education is the solution” – nice story of a Gloucester school which enforced a digital detox: reported in The Guardian:
Many young people themselves recognise problems of over use. See this from the Growing Up Digital Report: “Many children recognize the symptoms of internet addiction, including losing contact with reality, losing interest in activities, headaches, eye problems, sleep problems, and losing friends.” EU Kids Online: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/60512/1/EU Kids onlinie III.pdf (Dec 2016). We can use this awareness: the first step to dealing with compulsive behaviour is to recognise the problem and want to stop.