Worrying trends in the effects of internet use among primary school children

We cannot ban the internet for kids, but a structured time allowance that lets them engage with friends, play games, and learn is Diarmuid Hudner’s recommendation.

Research by Cybersmarties.com — a safe social network for kids — shows that there are some worrying trends among the youngest of our society in how they interact with the internet. Cybersmarties Data Warehouse — the research arm of Cybersmarties.com — uses cartoon characters and other features to carry out surveys in real time among its 80,000 plus users and is the most comprehensive mirror effect of how internet use affects young children in Ireland today.

The research reveals that 95.8% of 8- to 12-year-olds feel anxiety or depressed if wi-fi is turned off in their home or their access to tablets or mobile phones is restricted. This figure has been steadily increasing over the last few years where, despite awareness campaigns, the access to devices with internet availability is increasing among younger children and therefore their dependency level is increasing.

This really comes down to evaluating how the family structure works on a practical level and then finding a compromise with our children. Parents lead busy lives and it is often easier to let our children have access to the internet to keep them entertained while all the work of the household gets organised than to restrict their use of it and deal with the repercussions.

As a parent myself, I get that. However, over-dependency by children on their devices is going to lead to problems in the future, of that I have no doubt. Internet addiction disorder (IAD) is on the increase worldwide, not just in Ireland and what is worrying here is that research is proving that those who suffer from IAD have a higher probability to also suffer from other disorders as they grow up such as depression, sleep disorders and anger management.

We cannot ban the internet; it is part of our lives now. What we recommend is a structured time allowance per day or per week for children to use the internet to engage with their friends, play games and learn.

Children do actually like discipline in their lives, they like routine. The internet is far from bad, it is just our interaction with it which needs to be modified. Research by Cybersmarties Data Warehouse also shows that 51.8% of children say they have difficulty sleeping after being online.

This corroborates other research indicators and makes sense: When a child plays a game online or watches videos, their brains are being showered with thousands of images, colours, sounds, etc, in rapid succession which can have an effect on the development of, among others, the prefrontal cortex part of their brain which is the area of the brain responsible for quick decision making and short term memory.

Adequate sleep is essential in the mental and physical development of a child and it is very important that suitable quiet time is given to children after being online before they try to sleep.”

Social networks in particular where the use of images and pictures sharing is prominent has also seen a rise in narcissism worldwide. This is a result of the ‘self-gratification’ experience of social networks whereby an individual becomes obsessed with how they look, how others perceive how they look

and whether they acknowledge this by sharing, commenting, or liking their images. This can have a highly dependent and mentally damaging effect on internet users of all ages. Girls more than boys tend to fall victim to this form of anxiety and also to cyberbullying, where a girl may receive numerous negative comments, many of which from other girls.

On Cybersmarties, we do not allow children to post images of themselves as we educate them to use social media in an entirely different way and as a result have 0.0015% instances of negative behaviour on our network.

However, our monitoring teams have seen a rise in advertising-based cyberbullying in the last 12 months, whereby children are making comments to each other or about other children in their school on whether they are wearing X brand of runners or clothes. This does raise the question as to how much advertising should be allowed to be shown to children online.

Although measures have been taken through GDPR and COPRA restrictions, all parents are aware of the ‘must-have’ Christmas toy which seems to miraculously appear each year for no apparent reason, only to go unused within 24 hours.

The issue today, however, is that this advertising goes on all year round through the games our children are playing to the videos they are watching.

The pressure to appear perfect in how we look and the life we lead, can have long-lasting negative side-effects for children in the development of the basal ganglia part of the brain which controls our habit learning and procedural learning functions, among others.

Feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, and self-criticism are generally accepted as being formed at a very young age as well as our reflex habits to react when something goes wrong in our lives.

At Cybersmarties we spend a lot of our time developing content aimed at developing positive behavioural habits in children at the youngest age so that this area of the brain is forms in a positive manner and is better equipped to deal with problems.

Diarmuid Hudner is CEO of Cybersmarties.com, a locked-down safe social network for children aged 7 to 12 which uses behavioural technology to educate children how to use social media positively.

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