Why children must know what’s behind their screen

This month, my life of social media, podcasts, school ‘dramas’, and professional development has coincidentally had a strong theme around online safety and the impact of social media and smartphones on all of us. It is so important to understand these issues as they have stealthily come to dominate every aspect of our lives from wellbeing, family life and school grades. I thought I would collate a collection of important podcasts, videos, websites and apps that will help everyone better understand the darker sides of our everyday phone habits and how to start remedying them.

In 2018, Your Attention is the most valuable thing you own

Source: en.wikipedia

The Facebook story really started in 1836. A telescope in Australia discovered human like creatures on the moon. They had short red fur, bat wings, and had lots of sex. This story was published by The Sun newspaper in New York and was the first example of deliberate fake news created purely for reader attention in the name of advertising. At the time, newspapers were expensive (6c) and circulations small, The Sun realised it could sell its readers to advertisers rather than real news to its readers. It sold for only 1 cent with fake news and lots and lots of ads. The fabricated stories made it the most read and most profitable paper in New York. Ever since then, each technology revolution (Radio, TV, Internet, Social Media) have all adopted this low quality, attention-based business model. You will have noticed that before the subscription model (Netflix) became the norm, we went from publicly funded actors in acclaimed shows like Faulty Towers in the 70s to just staring at the Kardashians going about their daily lives in 2005.  Here is a 40 minute radio episode (Links: iPhone, Android, Spotify, Laptop) that explains the whole Attention story and how we got to Facebook and questions like “can you manage your screen time?”

Social Media want their dollars not yours

“It’s great that students can now produce their own channels and publish media for free” – Richard Wells (Me in 2015)

If social media as we know it now was human, it would only now be finishing elementary/primary school. As we have adopted all these new technologies over just the last decade, the initial excitement has turned to serious concerns and there have been surprises for the tech companies as much as the consumers and families. Consequences are hard to predict. Between 2010 and 2015, I regularly taught students about the wonderful world of self publishing and setting up Youtube channels. I, like most people, was not aware of the many subtle dark sides of where this activity might lead. The video below outlines both the downsides of children’s unfiltered access to Youtube but also the meaningless void lived in by many Youtubers, fuelled by the new global currency – “user attention.”

Addiction – Our day was designed by casinos

“There are only two industries that refer to their customers as users. Tech companies and Drug Dealers” – Prof. Edward Tufte

It’s not just the Social media companies. It is in the interest of the tech companies that build our smart phones to keep us on them as much as possible. It is only in 2018 that Apple and others are adding tools to manage the addiction that they have been caught creating. This is not out of moral obligation but because increasing news reports are affecting share prices. Apple users now receive a weekly usage report as part of their phone’s system. New research suggests that more than half of us have an addiction on a par with that of gambling. This was built into the tech literally using the same tricks developed over decades by casinos. These psychological tricks which were then adopted by computer games in the 80s and now social media companies. The large brands pay millions to experts ensuring their apps make the most of these casino addiction tricks. Even having someone else’s smartphone face down but in view can change your behaviour to become less creative and active.

Social media use the following casino tricks:

  1. Rapid feedback
    Knowing you may get instant reactions to posts and messages means we get a dopamine hit in our brain from even sending messages and sharing media. The companies provide numerous but effortless tools for providing this often meaningless feedback.
  2. Random rewards
    It was in the 1950s that research showed making rewards and feedback random made people continue more with the activity. Sometimes you get likes and sometimes not. This keeps you wanting to post more to see how successful you’ll be next time. It’s not as interesting if you always get the same 3 likes.
  3. Numbers are mini goals
    There is a web browser extension that removes all the little numbers (Metrification) from your Facebook page. The reason for this is because the extension’s maker knew that all those numbers are another casino trick to keep you hooked. Numbers lead to goals. You may have 126 Friends, 32 Likes, 16 comments, 3 events. Your last post was 9 hours ago, now 10 hours ago etc. Fruit machines are covered in numbers for the same reason. It leads your brain to subconsciously set continuous mini goals, create anxiety about why they are or are not changing, and encourage more activity
  4. Bottomless pits with no stopping cues.
    Remember Newspapers? How about books, or weekly TV shows. Our media used to always have forced breaks. Now we have an endless stream and Autoplay to ensure we keep locked to our screens. Netflix increases viewing further by adding a countdown timer to their Autoplay. The casinos deliver food and drink to people at the Fruit Machines for the same reason.

Here is a 30 minute radio show (Links: iPhone / Android / Spotify / Website) covering all these issues and more in terms of how our social accounts control our behaviour without us noticing.

Unforeseen effects

Convenience is the first thing we see in technology because that is what it is sold on. It is only after time, do we start to notice the often subtle changes that have happened in people’s habits, thoughts, and the impact these might have on the wellbeing of society. Did Facebook elect Trump? Can Teens handle receiving or not receiving Likes on their posts? What about self harm? There are recent stats to show that social media alone was causing issues but when it moved into teenagers’ pockets on Smartphones, there was a surge in teenage self harm amongst girls.

Source JAMA

Child labour?

Children’s behaviour is now hugely affected by our Attention economy. Not only in the way they consume screen media but in how their actions are controlled by people and companies who know the value of their mostly unconsented attention. I found my own daughter watching Georgia Productions on Youtube. It looked like harmless fun but I asked what the videos were about and my daughter said “anything.’ I watched for a minute and explained what was going on. Georgia just needs viewers so …

  • She doesn’t swear so that parents will be ok with their 8 year olds watching it
  • The videos are only 5 minutes so kids know it’s only short
  • Youtube’s Autoplay ensures her videos keep coming
  • She edits the film into 0.7 second clips to make it jerky and more attention grabbing
  • She talks about anything just to create another video
  • She has been watched 45 million times by mostly young children
  • She makes money from grabbing and controlling children’s attention.

My daughter said “Yes, that’s what my friend does in her videos.” her friend is also 11 year-old.

5 Quick tips for parents:

  1. You are the parent and must apply guidelines about device and media usage that are informed and explained rather than just blanket on/off rules. Don’t play into the hands of the tech companies’ achievement of normalising these devices and apps as “must-haves.”
  2. Make changes as a family. To encourage and support children, you must make the same efforts yourself. We are all affected.
  3. Do not allow children younger than 13 to have social media accounts. They don’t understand all the hidden effects (well-being, peer-pressure,) on all aspects of the lives and react and behave incorrectly.
  4. Once they understand how they are manipulated, they must learn the device settings to reduce this manipulation. These include: Turning off Notifications, Switching on Night Shift (Screen blue light leads to lack of Sleep), “Do not disturb”, The Thrive app, and switching off Autoplay (this is normally a setting on the website), the new screen time reports (Apple) or new Google Screen time app, and Apple’s children accounts and parental controls.
  5. Keep this conversation going. If you implement changes to your family’s device time, you will have more face-to-face time to talk further about how all this new tech is developing and it’s impacts on society.


General advice for all


Help manage screen time: Thrive App

Guidance in messaging: ReThink App