We Care About Kids’ Physical, Emotional, & Social Well-Being. What About Their Digital Well-Being?

by | Mar 26, 2023 | Media

Two new studies have added to the mountain of evidence for the negative impact of social media on kids’ health and well-being.

One, in Psychology of Popular Media, showed that limiting social media led emotionally distressed kids to feel better about their appearance and weight. Another, in PLOS Global Public Health, confirmed a relationship between social media use and eating disorders.

It’s not that social media directly affects body image in ways that can lead to disordered eating. Rather, the authors of the second study note, social media use may trigger “a self-perpetuating cycle of risk.”

Results highlight that social media is highly addictive, and individuals use it despite negative outcomes. In fact, to ‘fix’ their poor body image, users may be even more inclined to do so (e.g., manipulate photos to obtain more likes)—indicated by a hypothesised feedback loop. It is this which may trigger the self-perpetuating cycle of risk. However, this cycle can be broken. Several moderators, or buffers, that have the potential to disrupt it. Many studies showed that whilst individuals still internalised the ideal or compared themselves to others, high social media literacy and body appreciation prevented this from resulting in body image dissatisfaction, disordered pathology and poor mental health.

It’s all a potent reminder of just how important it is that we focus on nurturing kids’ “digital well-being” just as much as their physical, emotional, and social well-being. Such studies remind us that, without attention to this area, the others can suffer.

It’s Not Just Social Media

But while pundit after pundit weighs in on the social media issue, it’s crucial to recognize that social media alone isn’t the problem. As we noted in a post earlier this year, the recent spike in kids’ screen time is less from social media use and much more video watching and gaming of all kinds – not just violent games, although their content remains a real concern.

teen playing game on phoneLike social media platforms, video games are designed to be addictive. The idea is to keep us coming back for more and more, as a game developer described not long ago in a terrific piece for the New York Times. He brought up the example of Candy Crush, one of many games built around the concept of limited lives.

Why, you might ask, would someone get addicted if the developers prevent players from gaming as much as they like?

I have used the same mechanic in my own games, and this is how I explained it to my engineering team. Say I have a delicious chocolate cake. If I give you the entire cake, you might eat the whole thing in one go because it’s the best cake you ever had. But you likely will “overdose” and may not want to touch chocolate cake again. What if, instead, I give you a tiny slice each day? Gradually, you develop a daily habit, and you might end up buying 10 cakes from me.

That’s the ultimate goal: to build habit-forming games that have players coming back every day. In other words, it takes away the decision-making.

But it’s a goal he began to question a lot once his daughters became old enough to show interest in gaming themselves.

Of course, not every gamer will develop a true gaming addiction. One study cited by this game developer found that 10% of its teen subjects “developed pathological tendencies related to video games, including having difficulty stopping play.” They were also more prone to depression, aggression, anxiety, shyness, and problematic phone use.

Even then, we can ask: Is it the gaming itself? Or is it more that when screen time is unrestricted, there’s a strong tendency for it to displace other, more active behaviors? It’s well established that the more sedentary the lifestyle, the greater the risk of depression, anxiety, and other psychological distress in kids.

Understanding Technology’s Impact, Becoming Good Screen Time Mentors

father and son looking at mobile phone togetherNo doubt, both research and debates about cause and effect will go on for some time. Regardless, we have an obligation to the kids we teach, treat, guide, or raise to help them learn how to use technology wisely, just as we must teach them how to eat healthy food, practice good hygiene, and so on. They’re not born knowing it. Leaving them to figure things out on their own can be a real recipe for disaster.

To teach it well means understanding technology’s lure, its impact on developing minds, and how we can use that knowledge to guide children toward healthy screen use.

This was exactly why we were so pleased to collaborate with psychologist doreen dodgen-magee on a pair of courses for families, educators, and others who work with kids: How Families Can Moderate Their Technology Use and Technology: How It Shapes Our Brains, Relationships, and Sense of Self. Doreen is an expert in this area who has written two wonderful books on our relationships with our devices, each other, and ourselves: Deviced!: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World and Restart: Designing a Healthy Post-Pandemic Life.

Both courses are available on-demand, and taking either will also give you a 30% discount on Deviced!, along with additional resources to help you guide children toward healthy technology use. Here’s a taste of her compelling teaching style:


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