Depression among harms linked to children’s social media use
Adding to a growing chorus demanding that tech companies act more responsibly, a coalition of more than 100 public health advocates today called on Facebook to pull the plug on Messenger Kids, the first major social platform designed specifically for young children. In a letter written and organized by the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), the coalition detailed the ways the new app will undermine children’s healthy development. CCFC also launched a petition calling on Facebook to scrap the app. The action comes on the heels of demands from investors that Apple take steps to address the harms smartphone use has on children and adolescents.
“In a landscape of ubiquitous technology that undermines children’s emotional growth, the last thing the youngest among them need is a powerful enticement to move their friendships online” said Dr. Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology, MIT, and author of Reclaiming Conversation. “As children spend more and more time on digital devices, they lose the healthy capacities to cultivate moments of quiet and solitude that are so crucial for developing empathy and healthy relationships. And they miss out in the skills that face-to-face conversations teach.”
The advocates’ letter cites a growing body of research linking adolescent social media use with depression, poor sleep habits, and unhealthy body image. It also points out that Facebook Messenger Kids will make parents’ job more challenging: “Almost half of parents say that regulating their child’s screen time is a constant battle. Messenger Kids will exacerbate this problem, as the anticipation of friends’ responses will be a powerful incentive for children to check – and stay on – a phone or tablet.”
“It’s galling to see Facebook target young children at a time when evidence is mounting that excessive social media use negatively impacts kids and teens’ wellbeing,” said CCFC’s Executive Director Josh Golin. “Parents, health professionals, and even investors are standing up to tell tech giants that they’ve gone too far. This is a pivotal moment, and Silicon Valley executives must decide if they care about the welfare of children, families, and society, or only about hooking users and pursuing profits.”
Facebook rolled out Messenger Kids in December, giving children under 13 official access to the Facebook platform for the first time. It gives parents some control – kids’ accounts are linked to parent accounts, and parents must approve contacts. But it’s designed with features like emojis, colorful stickers, and animations to draw and hold kids’ attention, keeping them engaged with the Facebook platform even if they are too young to type.
“At that age, children are not ready to use social media on their own,” said Jenny Radesky, MD, a developmental behavior pediatrician and media researcher at the University of Michigan. “Developmentally, it’s hard for 6- to 12- year- olds to grasp concepts like privacy and who is using their data. They’re just starting to build awareness about their identity, their role in relationships, and morality. Combine that immaturity with the problematic interactions that often happen on social media, and it could be really messy.”
Facebook says Messenger Kids will help children communicate with long-distance relatives and provide a safe alternative for kids who lie their way onto social media platforms designed for teens and adults. But, the letter notes, “the 11- and 12-year-olds who currently use Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook are unlikely to switch to an app that is clearly designed for younger children. Messenger Kids is not responding to a need – it is creating one. It appeals primarily to children who otherwise would not have their own social media accounts. It is disingenuous to use Facebook’s failure to keep underage users off their platforms as a rationale for targeting younger children with a new product.”
Added Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Professor Emerita in Early Childhood Education at Lesley University and Senior Advisor for Defending the Early Years, “As a grandparent with grandkids in faraway places, I’m grateful for technology that helps us see and talk with each other. These tools can help bring families closer together. But our young children are not developmentally ready to handle social media, and we should protect them from it throughout their childhood years.”
Among other leading experts and advocates signing the letter to Facebook are: Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google and co-founder of Time Well Spent; Jean Twenge, PhD, author of iGen; and the organizations Common Sense Media and Public Citizen.
Many of the experts who signed the letter to Facebook are members of the Children’s Screen Time Action Network, launched last fall by CCFC. Network members from a wide variety of fields – including pediatrics, early childhood, psychology, and education – share a common belief that excessive screen time and commercialism is undermining children’s wellbeing. The Network also provides resources for concerned parents who want to reduce the time their children spend on digital devices. On April 20-21 in Boston, the Network will host the first national conference on reducing children’s screen time.