Electronic Devices: Positive or Negative Social Effects?

Screen Shot 2017-03-25 at 11.57.23 AMBy Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

When is the last time you were in a public place in Mexico or, for that matter, almost any place in the world, when you did not see a person staring at a mobile device screen? At restaurants babies propped up in highchairs are transfixed by brightly colored images dancing across little screens while their parents and older siblings tap away at apps on other hand-held devices. Often loud laughs are accompanied by exchanges of smartphones to share the source of merriment. How pervasive is this phenomenon? And does it have a positive or negative effect on individuals and their relationships? After reviewing the evidence, we’d say the answer is, “primarily negative.”

Mexico is one of the top ten countries in the world in terms of numbers of users of the internet; over 58,000,000 people were internet users in 2016. (The top three countries were China, India and the U.S.). In part, the relatively high number of actual users is driven by the number of people in the population. Looking at the proportion of people in countries who can access the web, only 45% of Mexicans were internet users, compared to almost 100% in Norway and Iceland and 88.5% in both the U.S. and Canada. But still, the sheer number of people in Mexico who are logged on means users are highly visible. In Mexico, mobile phones are the primary method for accessing the World Wide Web. Since they can connect to widely available Wi-Fi services or via mobile telephone data services, people can be seen using them just about anywhere.

Mexico leads the world in the proportion of internet users who access You Tube and ranks second in the world among Facebook fans. Although Twitter has become notorious in its U.S. home base because of the platform’s use and abuse by Donald Trump, the percent of Mexican internet users who tweet or at least read tweets far exceeds percentages in the U.S. or Canada.   And Mexican mobile phone users have helped lead the way in using WhatsApp for instant messaging; the app has become so popular in Mexico that it is virtually the only reliable way we can communicate at a distance with many friends who live in coastal Oaxaca. Its popularity may be due to Mexico’s historically high cost of text messages and cost per minute of voice telephone calls.

So Mexico has joined the modern global dependence on electronic devices, especially mobile phones, with obvious relish. But what effects can be expected from these new forms of communicating with family, friends, and the world in general? The picture, based on research carried out in many countries, tends to be age-based and for many age categories not as favorable as one would hope.

Babies and toddlers whose parents distract them with cartoons or other images on mobile screens, or for that matter on TV screens, are extremely vulnerable to negative long-term outcomes. Delayed language development, attention deficit disorders, and sleep problems have all been found to result from early childhood screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that children under the age of two not be exposed to any screen media, including mobile devices and TV. That does not mean that mobile devices are okay after age 2. Three-year-old children exposed to screen media are significantly more likely than unexposed children to experience long-term health consequences, including obesity and behavioral and academic problems. Researchers have debunked the claimed educational value of games and other screen media programs touted as raising a child’s IQ. Every minute spent staring at a screen reduces the time young children are engaged in learning life skills. An international survey of 2200 mothers of preschool age children found that vastly more children knew how to use new technology than could tie their shoe laces, ride a bike, or swim.

School-age children can derive some educational benefit from limited amounts of use of new technology specifically designed for teaching academic skills to their age group. But even so, discussing lessons learned with teachers and parents greatly enhances these positive effects. And use of these beneficial media are far outweighed by the use of nonproductive video games or watching videos that are at best are neutral, and often have been found to be associated with lower academic achievement and health problems. It is noteworthy that, although Facebook attempts to limit its services to people over the age of 13, an estimated 7.5 million younger children also have Facebook accounts and access to information that they developmentally are not prepared to handle. Often parents are complicit in evading the age restrictions for their children.

Misuse of new technology also affects children indirectly. Their parents’ and caretakers’ use of mobile electronic devices results in inattention to the needs of children. We’ve all noticed children misbehaving while their nearby parent is engrossed in texting, posting or attending to messages or information on a mobile device. Studies have demonstrated that generally misbehavior escalates as a bid for attention the longer the parent (or caretaker) stays on the phone. Other negative effects of parental or caretaker use of mobile devices seem to be associated with children’s poor dietary habits, since they are not encouraged to eat nutritious food and unwholesome sedentary behavior since they are not encouraged to actively play.

The mobile-device users who appear to be most entranced with new technology are teenagers; world-wide, they appear to have a cell phones glued to their hands, and thumbs that can tap faster than Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Actually, teens are slightly less likely to be online than young adults who are past their teen years. Still, a Pew Research Center study in 2015 found that in the US 92% of teens reported going online daily and 24% reported being online constantly. This includes having the phone in bed or nearby while sleeping, a practice that interferes with sleep because of the light emitted from the screen and hypervigilance for incoming messages. While teens in Mexico are less likely than those in the US to have access to new technology, there are no data to suggest that Mexican teens with a mobile devices behave differently from their US counterpart. A “typical teen” reported receiving 30 text messages a day. Teen boys are more likely than girls to play video games on their mobile device, although they too send many texts or instant messages. Facebook was the preferred teen platform two years ago, although 71% of teens use more than one app and among teen girls Instagram and Snapchat were also favorites.

What effect does all this connectivity have on teen behavior? Some outcomes, such as from playing video games, can be anticipated based on research on the effects of older technology such as TV. TV video games involving violence have long been known to increase teen aggressive behavior. And recent Dartmouth research has shown that such games, now virtually available on mobile devices wherever teens happen to be, also lead to reckless driving, police stops, and an increase in driving after drinking.

On the surface, mobile phones appear to allow more parental supervision. After one of our teen grandchildren, supposedly at a friend’s home, was involved in a noisy party in a parking lot that the police visited at 2am, she was subsequently required to have an app on her cell phone that allowed her parents to determine her location at all times. But studies have shown that the ability for parents to reach teens after their curfew led to more teen negotiation and later returns home. Mobile devices have facilitated the phenomenon of “helicopter parenting,” which is parents’ involvement in nearly every activity and decision of their children, even on trivial matters.

The teen years are critical for forming self-identity, and the ubiquitous use of social media is complicating the process. Teens form their identity by trying out different personae while interacting with others. To a certain extent social media provides a safe way for a teen to present different aspects of whom they think they would like to be. However, unlike face-to-face interactions, teens cannot judge what reactions they are actually receiving and who is providing the reactions. On the one hand, they can derive support and boosts to their self-confidence via social media. On the other hand, they can be encouraged to carry out socially unacceptable behavior or be criticized by classmates or by “friends” they have never actually met. In general, research has found that online interactions can exacerbate both the positive features and genuine perils of teen relationships.

Interestingly, teens downplay the effect of social media on their own behavior and emotions. For example, most teens in relationships indicate that social media helps them stay connected with their significant other but that social media plays a relatively minor role. Teen boys are more likely than teen girls to think that social media improves their relationship. But although many teens, over 25%, report that social media is a source of jealousy or feeling unsure of their relationship, they say it is not an important source. While teens largely dismiss negative effects of being constantly wired to the internet, psychologists have pointed to a host of problems including addiction to being online, increased cyber-bullying, increased strains in parent-adolescent relationships, sleep disturbances, and interference with academic achievement.

We adults can come up with scores of reasons for the social benefits of new technology: staying connected to family and friends, online support systems for specific problems, cost-saving communications via the internet, ability to immediately access important information, and on and on. A growing body of research suggests that many adult users of social media are addicted to the new technology and are compelled to frequently check the platforms they use for updates. The more time they spend communicating on social media, the less they are able to function well in face-to-face conversations. Some scholars are concerned about the long-term impact on human mental function and intellect. Frank Rose, in his book The Art of Immersion, argues that we are living in a hyperlink economy where information is worth less than the ability to retrieve it. Our dependence on technology threatens human reliance on logic, critical thinking, and common sense.

Dependence on social media primarily reinforces existing modes of thinking and rarely promotes a change of opinion. A study posted on the Social Science Research Network, “Echo Chambers” showed that users tend to form polarized or isolated groups, promote their own narratives, and resist information that doesn’t conform to their beliefs. When false information that confirms the group’s existing narratives is introduced, it is rapidly shared and integrated, which gives rise to the name “echo chamber.” When truthful information is introduced to debunk the false information, it is ignored or somehow tends to reinforce the users’ false beliefs.

Another impact comes from the idealized versions of themselves that people present on social media sites. Adult users, as well as teens, tend to feel anxious and depressed that their lives are not in such perfect order. On the positive side, though, researchers at USCD Medical School have suggested that social media can be used to spread happiness; “happy status updates encourage other users to post happy status updates themselves.” And presenting oneself as happy can actually positively change one’s mindset.

So folks, keep your little ones off new technology, monitor your teens, seek out reliable online information you’ve never thought about before, and go online and encourage people to be happy.

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