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Opinion: 'The children I meet are often shattered by their social media use'

Often, girls are worn out by body judgement and boys by overuse of video games, writes Stella O’Malley, a psychotherapist.

Stella O'Malley

FOR MANY PARENTS, an all-out ban on tech seems pointless. We all know that prohibition seldom works; worse than that, it often creates a forbidden allure around the banned object.

Anyway, technology is incredibly useful in our lives. We enjoy it for entertainment purposes, we use it for work, and it provides many of us with opportunity for social context, so it feels narrow-minded to try to force children to live without tech.

How I work

I’m an integrative psychotherapist and I work with a wide range of people who present with many different types of problems.  I often get referrals from GPs but most of my client base comes from readers of my books.

I see teenagers and adults but I don’t see younger children – instead, I work with the parents of children under 12 and collaborate with them to help their child.

Yet, in my work as a psychotherapist, I can’t help but notice how much our devices have become a poisoned chalice in our lives. On the one hand, they are great fun and often fascinating, but on the other hand, they can be a continuous distraction from our real lives and can often make us feel tense, nervy and disconnected.

Some children manage technology in their lives very well but there seems to be a certain type of person who is more susceptible to becoming fixated with their devices than others.

This child is often very focused and oblivious to their surroundings while using the device, but then, when it is taken away, their all-consuming rage can be shocking.

How it begins

The companies that are making eye-watering profits from technology that targets children are focused upon keeping the children on their screens for as long as possible.

They begin the process by enticing children and parents in with advertisements about how educational and creative the technology is. Many parents are impressed with these promises and don’t want their children to grow up without knowledge of tech.

Sadly, it doesn’t take long for the so-called creative and educational programmes and games to be swapped for mindless rubbish.

shutterstock_791437147 Source: Shutterstock/Dean Drobot

Girls and the hunt for ‘likes’

Through the work I do, I have found that the focus on the visuals from apps such as Snapchat and TikTok seems to have fostered a type of vanity and narcissism in young girls.

It often starts playfully with funny faces, bunny ears and sparkles coming out of the hair but ultimately, for many children, these funny images soon lead to a series of selfies and an over-the-top fixation with their appearance.

Teenagers attempt to reach out to their ‘tribe’ by presenting their image to peers for approval and validation. Every new place or event attended bring photo opportunities.

Nights out socialising with friends turn into extended photoshoots that show how much fun they are. Unfortunately, what I find is that a young girl’s friends can generally be more focused upon their own self-image and so can, therefore, be fickle in their approval. That constant seeking of approval is a pinch point for young girls.

‘Likes’ don’t tend to lead to any sense of inner satisfaction – rather they often trigger an anxious need to continuously check and recheck our media.

Stressful for parents

Many parents are just like me and were raised back in an era when few among us had any confidence in our looks. Consequently, when our children show such pride in their appearance, parents often feel a mixture of pleasure, disbelief and fascination that our children are so incredibly pleased with their own self-image.

Sadly, I meet far too many teenagers in my work who initially present as very self-satisfied, sophisticated and confident but then over time, it emerges that they feel shattered inside.

Although their outer veneer is impressive, inside they are like frightened rabbits; always afraid that they will be found wanting; intensely fearful that everyone will turn on them and often just waiting for the rug to be pulled from under them.

And they’re probably right to be so worried – it’s not just high-profile people who fall victim to vicious pile-ons; online bullying is rampant on social media.

shutterstock_635883998 Source: Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia

For boys, it’s video games

Although loneliness, vanity and anxiety are common features for many teenagers who overuse social media, a whole other wide range of problems can also present due to overuse of video games.

Many of the boys I work with have become fully absorbed in their online lives to the detriment of their real lives. These children prefer to live online – they are funnier online, their mates are more interesting when they’re online; life is just better when they’re online.

Some children fall into overuse of video games between the ages of 10 and 15. Life can be complicated and playing video games is a really good way to forget about the messy difficulties of life.

Teenagers who become over-focused on video games can lose interest in their hobbies, in school and in their peers.

Problems often arise when these teenagers try to re-engage in their lives and find that they haven’t learnt the necessary social skills to help them along the way.

We need to talk about pornography

Over-use of pornography is another increasingly common issue among teenage boys I work with. While they may consider themselves to be sexual connoisseurs online, these children have often never even kissed a girl in real life.

Indeed, they often prefer to remain strictly platonic with the real-life girls in their lives and keep their sexual side for the privacy of their own bedrooms – the messy business of flirting and being vulnerable to rejection is just too scary.

children-online-research Source: PA

It is, perhaps, arguable that maybe they are right – might this be a healthier way to handle a sex-drive that far exceeds their maturity? Yet the loss of romance amongst their peers and the loneliness of this decision leaves these teenagers living in a hyper-sexualised world, causing them to often withdraw from real-life relationships.

If a child is spending all their time on devices and is disconnected from their friends, then it can be difficult for them to sustain meaningful friendships. We can’t really get to know someone who is always semi-distracted by some game or who is always online and presenting the most polished and perfected version of themselves.

It is only when we authentically turn up in our relationships that people can get to know us. Technology offers us fabulous opportunities, but we need real-life friends and we need a real-life – because no matter how interesting life is online, it is only in the deeper connections that we feel truly alive.

shutterstock_1155092077 Source: Shutterstock/LightField Studios

Teach your children how to make mindful decisions about tech

Consuming technology all day every day is bad for our health and so we should teach our children to make a decision to ‘go online’ and to ‘go off-line’. Being semi-online all day every day is mentally draining. Here are some tips for parents:

Create tech-free rooms in your house
The kitchen and bedrooms are good places to start. This means that if you are in the kitchen and your phone pings, you leave the kitchen in order to read the message. People nowadays go outside to have a cigarette, in a similar way, we need to acknowledge that reading our phones while in the company of others is inappropriate and remove ourselves when necessary.

Set aside tech-free times in the house
Many parents find that turning off the WiFi between 10 pm and 9 am is an effective way to keep some sort of control over our children’s technology habits. Children who have free reign over their tech in their bedrooms late into the night can often be witness to the weirder and darker side of the internet. Not only that, but lack of sleep is a serious issue for our era and good sleep hygiene entails keeping control of our tech use at night.

Establish some parental controls over the devices in the household
There are many different ways for parents to gain control over their children’s devices. Some parents swear by Net Nanny, others by iKydz and other apps, but too many parents dread the couple of hours it takes to install these controls and so they never quite find the time to get around it. Do your kids a favour today – begin the tedious but very worthwhile process of installing parental controls on all the children’s devices in your house.

Asses your own social etiquette regarding technology
Many of us inwardly wince at our inability to control our own use of technology as we are prey to a multi-billion Euro industry that has successfully wrapped us around its little fingers. Begin to learn some appropriate social etiquette concerning your own use so that your children can know how to make sure that technology remains a good servant instead of a bad master.

Stella O Malley is a psychotherapist and an author. Her first book ‘Cotton Wool Kids’ was published in 2015, ‘Bully-Proof Kids’ was released in 2017 and her latest book ‘Fragile: why we’re feeling more anxious, stressed and overwhelmed’ was released last year. She hosts a podcast for parents called Secrets of the Motherworld.

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Stella O'Malley

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