Every morning on our way to kindergarten with my daughter, we see first graders walking to a nearby school. It's fun to observe them. I'm normally only half awake, it's pitch black and often freezing cold, but the students seem to be full of energy. Those who walk together with friends are laughing, talking loud, and surprisingly often mimicking shooting sounds.
Pretty sure that 30 years ago, me and my friends looked and sounded exactly the same.
When walking to school alone, I would make snowballs and attempt to hit the lantern poles; finding ways to entertain myself along the way. These days kids are glued to their smartphones. Even in -5C degrees they don't mind taking a glove off and staring at the screen – and I find myself doing exactly the same, browsing through emails, fingers half frozen.
In Finland Kids Get Smartphones at the Age of 7
Here it's a tradition to get your child their first smartphone when they start school. According to a study by DNA mobile operator, 60% of 5-6-year-olds have their own phone. Kids come and go to school by themselves, so the phone helps with keeping contact and making sure they’re safe and sound.
But there can be difficulties in-store for people who choose not to follow this new social norm; or don’t want their children to spend a lot of time online.
A Finnish journalist wrote about what it’s like when you don’t buy a phone for your first-grader. Their kid ended up being the only one in the class without a device. She felt like an outsider and the family quarreled constantly over the topic. This is the reality in almost every household; buy the smartphone, or enter a warzone.
Smartphones Have Changed the Lifeworld More Than We Imagine
Lifeworld is a philosophical and sociological concept that refers to the things we experience in our everyday life; alone or in social settings. Nowadays our lifeworld is heavily characterised by the presence of the digital technologies that play a part in almost every aspect of our life.
The digital environments impact children’s identities. Whenever they are posting on social media, the potential likes, comments and shares affect the self-image.
Following people's reactions to your posts creates a social validation feedback loop. It is one of the strongest drivers that makes us check: "did I get a like". Even adults don't have full control over this behavior; the chance for social validation is too tempting. Children have even less resistance.
For parents it can be a challenge to understand a child's life in digital environments. But in order to support and ensure their safety, you need to do just that – observe what the child experiences in the online world and understand the overall social media phenomenon.
Social Media is Dangerous for Kids – What a Cliché!
For the vast majority of people, social media channels provide a great space for being creative and keeping in touch with people. We all know how good it feels when you post something that’s meaningful to you, and get a positive response from friends and followers.
As the technology helps to keep ourselves updated on what's happening in the world, at the moment, it brings war to the screens of children. This requires parents to be able to talk to kids about war. As Russia is currently trying to invade their neighbouring country, Ukraine, and this matter is especially relevant for Finnish families as we happen to have 1300 kilometres of common border with Russia.
Besides war images, more often we've started to see stories in the media related to dangerous stunts that children or young adults have done in an attempt to gain more likes and followers. Several deaths have been linked to TikTok challenges, and numerous people have fallen to their death when trying to take a cool Instagram photo on a mountain cliff or rooftop.
As a parent, educator and tech company founder, I find this worrisome. Especially when presumably the majority of cases where a child has suffered severe consequences because of an online challenge are not shared publicly.
But social media is here to stay so the question is: what can we do to make the digital world safer for everyone?
Digital Citizenship Education & Safety Measures
Responsible parents find out what dangerous phenomena are out there, such as the TikTok Blackout challenge where a person strangles oneself to the point of fainting. These should be discussed with the child and the dangers made clear.
Fortunately, there are technologies to help parents with addressing harmful content, and even automatically blocking it when a child surfs the Internet.
Cyber Purify provides an AI solution for content filtering, while also offering information about dangerous TikTok Trends. Cyber Security education is a growing trend, and for example HackersJack offers a solution for schools to teach about how to stay safe online.
Shining light on the dangerous trends, explaining the risks, using content filters and basic media education are good solutions that usually help. However, the underlying problem why social media makes some people take horrifying risks, is not necessarily resolved with them.
In the long-term, for a child or adult to take control of their own use of addictive technologies requires social-emotional learning. Fighting the social validation loop is much easier when you have a positive self-image and understand why getting reactions from followers affect your emotions.
Developing skills for self-reflection, recognising emotions, understanding social relationships make an individual more resistant and capable of thinking for themselves. And not as likely to seek superficial validation via social media.
According to research we tend to wear different (social) hats in different social situations and it applies to our personae in social media channels as well. The best advice for any parent is to try to know your child, and today it means knowing his/her "digital personae" as well. The children also need support for understanding unfamiliar, distressing and potentially frightening topics. Answering their questions without judgement and in an age appropriate manner will help them process their feelings and fears. Good tips on how to approach this can be found from various sources, including Unicef.
Playing games and enjoying the same social media phenomenon are some great ways for connecting. As a tip, there are plenty of inspiring challenges to do together, such as Come Here Girl, Bingo Challenge or the #The100DayProject. Why not take part with the whole family!
Written by Olli Vallo, CEO of Education Alliance Finland.