As winter sets in, even in the best of circumstances we find ourselves spending more time indoors. With the spectre coming out of Europe of more lockdowns during the months ahead, our screen time is likely to be quite high, something especially problematic for children.
We’re gaining more insight into exactly how dangerous this can be. Recently there have been a number of internal Facebook documents leaked to the media showing how the platform often prioritizes user growth over the best interests of those using its services. Most well known are users mocking others' body types, and encouraging impressionable youth to try to emulate impossible physiques, not to mention threats and bullying. Facebook’s newsfeed looks to engage users as much as possible, but posts that elicit desired strong emotions often foster anger and a general lack of civility. Moreover, TikTok and Youtube recently settled out of court on charges of violating American privacy laws.
Yet the leaked Facebook documents also showed more subtle dangers, especially in regards to Facebook’s Instagram, its platform targeted at teenagers. Promoting ideals of materialism or sexualization is both common and dangerous for teens’ mental health. What's more, Instagram focuses on only the happiest moments in someone’s life, with Facebook recognizing internally that this causes feelings of inadequacy and loneliness for many. Photos are also easy to edit, and the ideals they portray are even more unattainable. Many teenagers see the number of followers on their Instagram accounts as a direct measure of their popularity, making it very hard for them to unplug from the platform.
Most worryingly of all, Facebook is currently developing a version of Instagram for pre-teens as well. Social media platforms already identify kids as their user base of tomorrow, and reason that if they don’t bring children onto their own platforms at an early age then a competitor will, holding on to them over the long term. Yet the shallow and cold behaviour that these platforms can encourage is even more detrimental for young children, leaving them vulnerable to strong feelings of isolation.
If Covid cases spike during the winter, many of us will be reluctant to allow our children to spend time in close contact with other kids. Yet this will almost certainly mean even more screen time and less physical activity, doing substantial harm to both the social and physical well-being of our youth. A balance will be needed, particularly if schools move to virtual learning again as winter conditions facilitate the spread of the virus.
Hopefully we’ll continue prioritizing outdoor in-person interactions, allowing children to play together freely outside. There is still no evidence that Covid spreads significantly outdoors in the absence of large crowds, but the evidence of the damage done by screen-based socializing was clear and has lately become overwhelming. By focusing on children’s overall well-being, we can avoid falling into the trap of protecting them from Covid infection while inadvertently causing other types of serious long-term harm in the process.