It should have been a wake up call for all of us when a former Facebook executive declared that he won't let his own kids use social media (a sentiment shared by the CEO of Apple). It seems a bit like a cook at a restaurant warning you that he would never feed this food to his children. It is prudent to listen to such advice, I have found.
If that was not enough of a red flag, consider this: Snapchat, the most popular social media app for kids, is adding an "After Dark" channel that will be dedicated exclusively to pornographic content — or "all things hot and horny," as the channel advertises itself.
This new addition will fit in nicely on a social media site that has been variously described as "a choice tool for sex predators" and a revolution that "changed sexting forever." The company has already been hit with a class action lawsuit over its pornographic content. Perhaps this will earn it another. But pornographic content on Snapchat should be no surprise. That sort of content is one of the main points — if not the main point — of an app that allows you to send self-deleting photos to other users. Recoiling in shock because there is nudity on Snapchat is like recoiling in shock because there is cholesterol at Cracker Barrel.
Whatever good might come of a child on Snapchat, those goods are vastly outweighed by the bad. That is an easy calculation to make in Snapchat's case, because the good weighs nothing. It is non-existent. There is really no objectively good thing about a child sending, or engaging with, photos and videos that disappear after he sees them. No child has ever been morally or emotionally improved by Snapchat. They have all been varying degrees of harmed.
But there is no reason to single out this one form of social media. Studies have consistently shown that all social media is detrimental to a child's happiness and well being. The recent increases in depression and suicidal thoughts speak to this. Indeed, kids who spend more than three hours a day on these sites are twice as likely to develop mental health issues. And three hours a day is not a very high watermark for most kids. They are already spending nine hours a day staring at screens. It seems likely that at least a third of that time would be allotted to social media, which naturally breeds compulsion and is therefore extremely difficult for anyone, least of all kids, to self-regulate.
I am told that these pitfalls must be balanced against the advantages of childhood social media use. What advantages? That it allows them to stay in touch with their friends? No, that is another of its disadvantages. It may well be its profoundest disadvantage, in fact. Social media — and the internet, generally — rob a child of his home life. Now, when he comes home from a full day of school, he still feels this strong compulsion to stay immediately connected to his peers. He remains completely immersed in peer culture, even when he is not physically surrounded by it.
This is really what lies at the root of the suicide and depression epidemic among our kids. We chalk it up to bullying, but that doesn't tell the full story. The problem is not simply that kids are bullied at school and online, it's that the bullying has such a deep effect on them because they are so desperate to find approval and identity in this culture from which they can no longer escape. Children have always been mistreated by their peers. But they have not always been this attached to their peers. It used to be that a bullied child could go home and, at least there, find respite from the cruelty and mockery. Now, there is no respite. Our kids are always together, and therefore always reliant on each other's approval and acceptance. Whether they are bullied or not, this is an unhealthy situation.
A child wants to be on social media so he doesn't "miss out." But "missing out" is precisely what he needs most. He does not need more ways to connect with his friends. He is too connected already. He needs a break from his friends. He needs to have a life and an identity outside of them. He will not find that life on social media.