Is Social Media Making Our Kids Grow Up Faster?
Kids are kids… right?
Believe it or not, evidence is mounting to suggest that this simple statement may not be as true as you’d think.
The Adult World of Social Media
No, we’re not talking about “adults only” content – though there’s still plenty of that on social media. Rather, the simple truth is that social media is a place of adult interaction – everything you say or do means something, and will often be shared with everyone else you know. More importantly, social media is specifically designed for people aged 13 and up – networks like Facebook have made this quite clear, in part because there are legal regulations about collecting the data of children.
Adults are able to regulate their digital lives by being careful about the things they say – they try to avoid posting things that could hurt them, avoid (some) arguments, and carefully curate their contacts while ignoring most connections with strangers.
Children have few of these inhibitions, especially when they’re accessing social media even before they’ve hit puberty. In fact, at the same time they’re learning to write coherent paragraphs, social media is asking them to create their entire digital identity and share it with the world – and sooner or later, they’re going to mess up.
The Physical Aspect
Physically, children are growing up faster. That’s not an opinion – documented research has shown that over the last few decades, children have been entering puberty earlier than ever before.
Now, as this pre-dates social media, it’s clear that social media cannot be the cause of physical maturation – you don’t have an effect without a cause. However, it’s very common for children to have access to the internet by the time they reach puberty… and they already know that the World Wide Web is an excellent source for information on practically any topic imaginable.
This, to put it bluntly, is bad. They’re not talking to a doctor who can tell them if it’s actually puberty or a more serious problem, and they’re not talking to parents that can help guide them through everything they’re about to experience. Worse, there’s no guarantee that the information they find online will be accurate, and it’s all too easy to be exposed to material and ideas they’re simply not ready to handle.
Once children know what’s “expected” of puberty, though, it’s not uncommon to see them figuring out a response. Some children try to hide it, since they worry about sticking out among their peers. Other children embrace the changes in their body, and may start trying to act like they’re older than they really are – there is a point where being more mature and developed is seen as a good thing, especially among children who are active in sports and see a real competitive advantage from early growth.
The Mental Aspect
The mind, however, is where things start to get complex. The brain develops at its own pace, separate from the development of the rest of the body, and younger children usually aren’t prepared to handle everything puberty throws at them. They may be physically maturing, but they’ll still act like children – and the dissonance can confuse everyone.
Social media can make this worse by giving children adults to imitate – but unlike the adults in a conversation, children are likely to say what’s on their mind with no thought for the future. This can also lead to a mish-mash of age-inappropriate phrases or behaviors when they’re offline.
In short, children may look and act grown-up, but inside they really haven’t developed as much as parents think they have. This is why it’s so important to monitor their use of social media and make sure they’re not getting involved in conversations that will make them grow up.
We think it’s best to let kids be kids – and controlling their access to things that encourage them to grow up early can help them stay at a mental age that matches their physical growth.