In Western culture, age divides us into these categories of numbers and expectations that don’t always account for the psychological differences between individuals and the life circumstances that affect these individuals’ brains. This is especially pertinent to keep in mind when examining the state of our society in an era where we have seen and experienced more technological advancement than when these original cultural myths around age were formed.
Today, those legally labeled as children in the U.S. (any age below 18) face more challenges than previous generations, and one of them is navigating social media. The level of autonomy that comes with social media and internet usage is a new challenge we face across all ages, albeit for children, they are lacking the necessary resources to face the issues that adults may have more experience or knowledge to combat for their own social media situations. Even then, there are issues that children are bringing to light through their social media engagement that are making their parents and adults all over the Western world begin to evaluate their own practices despite thinking that they’re more well-equipped than children.
For instance, there are problems of “sharenting” and “digital kidnapping.” These two phenomena enable anonymous digital users and predators to access photos of children that were posted by their parents and family members (usually without the consent of the young child) and use them to create fantasy character accounts for role-playing the child’s life. Not only that, there is the very real danger of adults and children accidentally or knowingly using geotags on photos, making it all too easy for hackers or strangers to access location information and use it to their advantage. Many times “sharenting” isn’t questioned for parents who aren’t famous and it takes children to have the conversation with them about consenting to any further posted photos of them—but even then, the damage is already done with many photos posted throughout the years prior. It is unfortunate that we have to be cautious on a medium that used to be thought of as a “digital yearbook” where we connected with family and friends daily, over a virtual distance, but this is the world we live in where digital literacy is a necessity across all ages.
This is exactly what the UK is prioritizing in 370+ schools in 2019 (and that is only the beginning) after growing numbers of mental illnesses among youth, increases in cyberbullying, and the release of research done on social media usage for this age group. The British government started its initiative by demanding protection for youth through stricter policies and safety features in proposed guidelines to be implemented on many social media applications in the UK. Then they took it a step even further and created a mindfulness campaign in these 370+ schools to encourage a movement towards combating the issues children are facing. These government initiatives in the UK have the best intentions for children in mind, and they’re exactly the policies that the U.S. government bodies (national, state, and local) need to prioritize for the youth here.
Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was enacted in the U.S. in 2000 with amendments in 2013 to protect child presence online, but it falls beyond short in providing realistic protection in the digital age that we live in now, which is constantly evolving along with the populace’s ability to find loopholes. COPPA has been proven to be unconstitutional and inadequate in many ways: it takes away first amendment rights from children, the 13 and younger age block for websites/apps like Facebook and Instagram can be circumvented by age fraud on their behalf or with parents’ help, access to pornography cannot be prevented effectively, and predatory advertising isn’t regulated as well as it should be—especially when age fraud enables advertisements to cater to children unknowingly. What is worse, there isn’t a national movement towards protecting children on the Internet efficiently through initiatives like the ones the UK is implementing. There needs to be a curriculum that integrates digital literacy and addresses the challenges students face on social media and the Internet so they are fully equipped to use their knowledge for safer practice online. Even more important, children need to be taught how to create an offline-online balance for the sake of their physical and mental health. With the suicide rate rising every year in this age group, the growing number of children diagnosed with mental or physical illness from tech usage, and a growing digital footprint that many children don’t understand, the stress and pressure that they already face in these years is only made worse. Additionally, with the societal focus in the U.S. on raising children to be perfect and equipped for high-paying careers in their future, it is becoming obvious that we are stealing youth away from children in favor of a false sense of security to alleviate our own economic anxieties. Behind screens most of their days, childhood development, interpersonal communication, and connection to the natural world have changed in alarming ways. I would argue that through the lack of regulation on behalf of the U.S. government over social media policies and internet usage for this age group, there is room for children to be groomed into adults for economic purposes, and this is most likely why the government is falling short. There is this unspoken norm that we must all be productive citizens who prove to be valuable for our society and economy, and while this was once limited to grown-ups, it is now a norm among children and adolescents who share an Internet that doesn’t fully consider age as relevant.
It would be an injustice to not consider the positive opportunities for children and what they’re teaching grown-ups in this digital age. One example of this can be seen in the overwhelming display of dedication and demonstrations to having a voice on climate change and other environmental issues. Taking to social media to have a voice on these issues, they organize together to start rallies/marches and lifestyle challenges. Social media has become the medium for children to gain a voice on these important issues and spread the word around the world. The use of this tool for good was also powerful when students rallied for gun-control after the Parkland shooting and were given the space to speak on news outlets across the nation. In the past, this would be unheard of, but children are more mobilized than ever to take action and gain a voice on a cause dear to them because they have an outlet where people they don’t even know will listen to them. Other benefits of social media for children include social skills development, technical skills, creativity, literacy, value formation, support, and self-expression. Social media keeps children connected to the world around them and people different from them, thus forming opportunities for children to connect, network, and gain cultural knowledge outside of their own. When children are protected on the Internet, then benefits such as these can continue to empower and educate. This is especially relevant as the presence of parents and guardians in children’s lives has decreased with increasing work demands and hours for the household to stay afloat, so while children may lack the attention and care that was once received by past generations, children have gained autonomy to make the best of this situation that is largely out of their control. There has been no better tool to date than social media to explore alternative realities and future possibilities. With the ability to identify with people who are experiencing the same difficulties as them and gain inspiration for turning their own perspectives around, screen-time can be a form of therapy. In my own state, California, I have seen a recent initiative for providing foster youth with cell phones that they can use to connect to the world around them and protect themselves from environments that they are forced to live in. This initiative can give a voice to many foster youths who may have been refused a voice all their lives and additionally establish a presence on social media (big or small) that can secure a better future for those still in foster care or provide the support they need when placed with families. Benefits like these provide children the means to grow in challenging times where the divide between digital connection and reality becomes increasingly blurred.
The generations before faced their own challenges in eras that faced tremendous innovation, and while those challenges seem like nothing compared to the ones we face today, they only seem this way because we are living in this new era of the digital age. The immediacy of understanding our world and the issues we must address are pressing, but through all the examples I provided above, we can see that children are ultimately teaching us the importance of addressing these earlier rather than later. It is this spirit and tenacity that grown-ups need to adapt to if we are going to aid the children in our lives and around the globe in defying expectations and doing what is imperative for our survival and the survival of future generations. We need to bridge the gap between digital reality and our reality, or else we will remain stuck in our ways.