The screening of life

Are parents right to worry about their children’s time online?

Posted Mar 28, 2014

In households across many countries across the world the scene is the same. Hundreds of thousands of youngsters are spending countless hours on social networking sites like Facebook or on internet sites such as YouTube. Indeed, a survey published during National Family Week reported that among eight to 15-year-old children, 40% of girls claimed Facebook was the most important thing in their lives (compared to just 6% of boys). Meanwhile, another survey reported that only 10% children had ever penned a handwritten letter. So should these findings be a concern to parents, or to society in general?

Well, when I was at school, if I fancied someone I’d send them a handwritten note. Nowadays, teenagers have SMS, Twitter and Facebook. The youth of today are just using the technologies of the day in the same way we did when we were their age. I love it when I’m working abroad and my children send me emails and texts. Snail mail couldn’t (and wouldn’t) work in these situations. When I was a teenager I passively watched a lot of television. For today’s teenagers, television viewing appears to have been displaced by various forms of interactive social media. They probably spend as much time in front of the screen as I did—it’s just they have more choice and are more proactive than I ever was.

I have three children—two teenagers and one ‘tweenager’—although I like to call them ‘screenagers.' Like me, all of them spend a significant amount of daily time in front of the Internet, video games, television, mobile phone screen and their iPads. But my daughter watching the latest Arctic Monkeys video on YouTube is really not that far removed from me waiting a whole week to see my favourite bands on music television shows when I was her age. I just wish I’d had in my teenage years what my children have today.

Some have argued there’s a technological generation gap between parents and their children. For some this may be so, but as socially responsible parents we need to play a proactive role in our children’s lives and get to know what they’re up to online. Almost all of my childrens’ online computer use takes place in front of me. Whether I’m watching my young son play Minecraft or watching my daughter talking to her friends on Facebook, I try to take an active interest in their online use.

The fact social networking sites appear to be so popular among girls is really no surprise. Comparing boys and girls, research has shown females tend to have better social skills and males often have better spatial ability. If this translates to online behaviour, I’d expect to see more girls engaged in social networking and more boys playing video games (which is what the empirical literature seems to show).

When I started researching the psychology of Internet behaviour back in 1994, there were isolated instances of people using the web to meet and date other like-minded users. Such behaviour was classed as strange and bizarre and these people were called ‘geeks’ and ‘anoraks.' Nowadays, the Internet is just another tool in peoples’ social armoury and used in almost every area of our lives.

Whether it’s work, romance or simply keeping in touch, it’s part of modern life and teenagers should be adept in using state-of-the-art technology—they’re certainly going to need it in the future. That’s not to say there aren’t downsides to children and teenagers using the Internet (such as the small minority who seem to be addicted to some online activities). One of the main reasons why behaviour online is very different from offline is because it provides a disinhibiting experience (a well known psychological phenomenon). This is where people lower their emotional guard and become much less restricted in their actions. The main reason for this is because when people are interacting with others online it’s non-face-to-face, non-threatening, and people perceive themselves to be anonymous.

On the positive side, this process can lead people to develop long-lasting friendships and sometimes fall in love online. On the negative side, people might do things online that they’d never dream of doing offline including, in some instances, criminal behaviour such as cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking. These people are engaged in text-based virtual realities and sometimes take on other personas and social identities as a way of making themselves feel good and raising their own self-esteem. Despite the negative side of online behaviour, there’s lots of evidence suggesting the Internet has a positive effect in most people’s lives. In short, for the vast majority of people, including screenagers, the advantages of being online, and on social networking websites, far outweigh the negatives.

References and further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Trends in technological advance: Implications for sedentary behaviour and obesity in screenagers. Education and Health, 28, 35-38.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Adolescent mobile phone addiction: A cause for concern? Education and Health, 31, 76-78.

Griffiths, M.D. & Kuss, D. (2011). Adolescent social networking: Should parents and teachers be worried? Education and Health, 29, 23-25. 

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Social networking addiction: An overview of preliminary findings. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.119-141). New York: Elsevier.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187. 

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Addiction to social networks on the internet: A literature review of empirical research. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Excessive online social networking: Can adolescents become addicted to Facebook? Education and Health, 29. 63-66.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Online gaming addiction in adolescence: A literature review of empirical research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 3-22.

Kuss, D.J., van Rooij, A.J., Shorter, G.W., Griffiths, M.D. & van de Mheen, D. (2013). Internet addiction in adolescents: Prevalence and risk factors. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 1987-1996.