How young is too young for social media?

Imagine being back in third grade. You are playing tag on the playground when you notice a group of your classmates looking at you from over by the swings. You are worried that they might be talking about you. You feel something… is it anger? Sadness? Isolation? Worry? See, the thing is you are still learning what your emotions feel like and what they mean. Remember you are back in third grade, back in time to when you were eight years old trying to figure out social norms. You decide to weigh your options. You could go to the teacher and ask for help. You could approach your classmates by the swings, and ask them if they were talking about you. Or you could let it go, and continue playing tag which you were thoroughly enjoying only minutes before. You choose option three… yay enjoy your recess! You see, this is common behavior among elementary students. These are young children learning to interact with one another, learning who they are (their needs and wants), and learning when to ask for outside assistance. How can we expect a child who is still navigating the playground to navigate the enormous pressures and expectations of social media?

The following are common growth patterns of upper elementary children according to Yardsticks 3rd Edition by Chip Wood. Eight year olds: full of energy, do things in a hurry, tend to exaggerate, like to talk, somewhat awkward, bounce back quickly from disappointments. Nine year olds: more individualistic, critical of self and others, often complain about fairness issues, can be sullen/moody/aloof/negative. Ten year olds: enjoy cooperative and competitive activities, expressive and talkative, desperately need outdoor time and physical challenge, generally content, usually truthful, highly sensitive.

Most children steadily move through the aforementioned growth patterns with the guidance and support of their parents, teachers, mentors, and peers. Now what happens when you allow these highly sensitive, somewhat awkward, moody, and self critical children to navigate Instagram, or Facebook? The truth is you are throwing the sheep to the wolves as they say. Your child is no longer just concerned with the unfair game of four square played at recess today. She is now devastated that no one has commented on her last Instagram post where she showed off her new shirt from Justice. The following questions creep into her mind like skulking shadows of self doubt. Am I fat? Do my friends not really like me? Is my new shirt actually ugly? These questions quickly turn into statements. “I am fat.” “I don’t have any friends.” “I can’t even pick out a cool shirt, what is wrong with me?” These statements affect your daughters self confidence, performance in school, and excitement about her future.

Nine year old Jake who already struggles with feelings of anxiety now feels overwhelmed with despair after seeing his classmate post a picture to his Facebook. The picture is of his birthday party, and includes half the boys in his class. Jake knew he wasn’t invited, but lucky for him he gets to feel the rejection all over again thanks to Facebook.

Eight year old Carrie drags her feet to school on Monday morning. Her mother cannot figure out what is the matter, they had a wonderful weekend together. “What is going on Carrie? Did something happen with someone in school?” Carrie looks up with tears in her eyes, “No mom, I had 32 followers on Instagram Friday, and by Sunday I only had 31 which means someone DELETED ME!” Carrie continues, “What did I do mom? Why would someone delete me?” Carrie’s mother is absolutely speechless… I mean wouldn’t you be?

Children do not understand social media “culture”. They are not developmentally ready to handle these online situations. Hell, they have a hard enough time working through tangible struggles such as cooperation during group work. In order to develop pivotal skills such a empathy, compassion, respect, and boundaries, children need to spend their time in the presence of other kids. They need to watch how their words carry weight. They need to witness their words and actions either brighten someones day, or ruin it.

Think of it this way… it is a proven fact that grown adults suffer elevated levels of anxiety, depression, hopelessness, isolation, and fear based on their unhealthy addiction to social media. Kid’s childhoods are already short enough. Support them in their imaginary play, listen to them when they want to talk about school, guide them but do not fix their every problem, and watch them grown into the beautiful, promising human beings that you always knew they could be. Social media will weave its way into their lives eventually. Let it be at a time when they are developmentally, socially, and psychologically ready to face the positive and negative impact that social media proposes.

An article on cyber bullying to follow shortly!

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