Texting, Social Media Are Ubiquitous in Children's Lives
Mobile technology devices have captivated children and teens. Teens, especially, are constantly attached to their cell phones, whether in school, in their cars, or on the street. Texting is now the "dominant daily mode of communication between teens
and all those with whom they communicate," according to Teens, Smartphones and Texting, a Pew Research Center study. Three in four of all teens (12 to 17 years) text, with 63% saying they exchange text messages daily. Older girls typically text 100 times a day, while boys text a little more than half that number.
Social media dominates children's lives. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that tracks the impact of digital technologies on children's social, emotional, and physical well-being, reports that three-quarters of teenagers have a profile on a social networking site, primarily Facebook, and one in five has a Twitter account. Teens also explore many other types of online media: 59% have used a video chat, 45% have text chatted in an online game, and 35% have visited a virtual world. Instagram, a smartphone-friendly photo sharing app, is the fastest growing social site in the world.
It is not surprising that many children start using sophisticated technology at a very young age. A 2013 study, Zero-to-Eight, reveals that mobile technology use by young children has surged. Seventy-two percent of children under age 8, including 38% of children under age 2, have used a mobile device to play games, watch videos, or use apps. The percent of children with access to a "smart" mobile device, such as a smartphone or tablet, has jumped from 52% in 2011 to 75% in 2013.
Broad Access, Less Supervision
Portable devices give children 24/7 access to the digital universe and make it far more difficult for adults to supervise their children's use of social media. That combination can pose real threats to their safety and well-being. "It's time to take a good look at the challenges children and their parents face in navigating social media and digital communication," Barbara A. Babb, director of the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) has said. "While social media has many benefits, children also may be exposed to cyberbullying, sexting, hate speech, online impersonation, privacy infringement and other misuses for which they are unprepared. We have to
balance our concerns about limiting free speech and privacy infringement with our duty
to protect children."
Tragedies resulting from the abuse of digital media already occurred in Maryland and other states. In April 2012, 15-year-old Grace McComas of Howard County, Maryland, committed suicide after being targeted for months in a relentless cyberbullying campaign consisting of online taunts, threats, and obscenities. In the aftermath, the Maryland legislature passed Grace's Law, which made electronic harassment of a minor punishable by a fine and a year in prison. Grace's mother, Ms. Christine McComas, will be a speaker at CFCC's upcoming Urban Child Symposium.
While it may be too soon to understand the full impact of social media and technology, several major reports point to significant changes in our lives since Facebook was launched 10 years ago. Mimi Ito and The MacArthur Foundation recently have made available the results of a three-year study on the role of social media as a tool for informal learning. The American Academy of Pediatrics has urged its members to provide guidance to parents about the risks of peer-to-peer pressure, outside influences, and the permanent digital footprint left by social media. In Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives, Common Sense Media reports on the emotional impact of social media on teens, including whether it contributes to depression and social isolation. Most teens say social networking makes no difference in their lives or that it contributes positively to their well-being. In It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Microsoft Senior Researcher and youth advocate Danah Boyd has interviewed more than 160 teens in 16 states to understand how social media affects the quality of teens' lives. The new book can be downloaded free here. She offers valuable insights but largely concludes that teens are doing online what they always have done in person: testing boundaries. The difference is that now the world can see what they are doing, which increases the risk of harm.