When digital expert Dean McCoubrey starts talking to teens about social media, they try to work out whose side he’s on: that of anti-screen adults or theirs, as the first generation to grow up with smartphones.
But McCoubrey, who founded MySocialLife to promote digital wellbeing, understands both sides of the great divide and works with students, parents and schools to bridge it.
Digital intelligence, or wise use of devices, is becoming increasingly important as smartphones become indispensable.
Jess Oosthuizen, a PhD student on the University of Cape Town’s cyberpsychology team, says though it’s true that some smartphone users can be regarded as addicts, the term “is not helpful to describe an entire generation of young people who are heavy smartphone users. Rather, it’s about recognising that smartphone use is pervasive. It’s here to stay.”
Instead of vilifying devices, teach adolescents how to use them as empowering tools, she says.
This need — for kids and adults alike — has sparked a demand for digital or “screen” coaches along with mindfulness coaches. Preventing digital dementia, when the overloaded brain underperforms and people burn out, is one of their tasks.
Accept it, and move on. “Young people love their online connections,” says Wits University social worker Busisiwe Nkala-Dlamini. “We need to move from always condemning online use to find ways to mitigate risks.”
When Oosthuizen did her master’s research on smartphones and adolescent usage, she expected her research subjects to do a month’s detox, but none did.
“The longest time a participant was willing to give up [their] phone was 10 days. One agreed to participate in the detox from breakfast until supper,” she says.
Being online is as vital to digital natives as eating and sleeping (too often trumping sleep) and they typically have a choice about how much and what to consume. Is it beneficial or is it junk?
Moderate consumption of social media is better for the mental health of young people than no or heavy media usage, researchers reported recently in the American Medical Association journal.
Children who used social media for an hour a day had a 12% “reduced risk of depression” but those who used it for more than five hours pushed up their risk by 80%.
Clinical psychologist Hugo Theron found a similar pattern with research done among Free State teens from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Children with moderate social media use had higher scores in terms of self-esteem, emotional regulation and relationships, he says. “The trends we saw were related to the amount of use and there were no significant differences between urban and rural.”
Families wind up at Theron’s consulting room in Cape Town polarised over screen use. “This is the first generation whose developmental identity is entwined with the internet. This the first generation of parents that has to mentor something they did not grow up with. Parents are still catching up and often don’t have a clue.
“Phones and social media are an important part of children’s lives and we must not demean them or ignore problems with them until it is too late.”
Theron advocates a “third way” around smartphones — a balance between the needs of fear-driven parents and “screenagers”.
That’s where frontrunners like McCoubrey come in, teaching digital life skills, mostly at Cape schools.
Understanding that the online world is “pop-up theatre”, entertaining but often fake — the camera does lie on tech platforms — is one of the critical-thinking skills in his programme.
Even though “screens provide a high-speed train into the outside world without a parent present”, the values and rules of the family still apply online, he explains to 10 and 11 year olds at Reddam House Preparatory in Somerset West.
One grade 5 girl volunteers for a tug-of-war with him. She yanks on a belt in his hands while McCoubrey resists. With self-awareness, he says, you can hold your ground when social media tries to pull you in a direction that isn’t true to your identity.
Professor Ramodungoane Tabane, head of developmental psychology at Unisa, feels that people compromise their identity by sharing indiscriminately online.
He warns: “Everybody will own a part of you and they can say: ‘You said this, you did this.’ You can get caught up in this world and lost.”
Behaviours that McCoubrey tries to inculcate include avoiding impulsive reactions online, considering the consequences of actions, learning from mistakes and protecting privacy.
People look at how clean your record is and they mean your digital record, not your police record
Digital expert Dean McCoubrey
With high school students, McCoubrey raises awareness about their digital footprint. “If you are going to apply for anything, people look at how clean your record is and they mean your digital record, not your police record.”
Reddam House Somerset digital head Anthea Oliver says McCoubrey’s programme is effective at teaching healthy online behaviour.
When it comes to cyberbullying, however, it’s hard to shield children. Students tell McCoubrey during every session that bullying is common — in line with national and global patterns.
“About 40%-60% of kids say they have experienced bullying. When I ask ‘Have you bullied?’, normally about 7%-8% admit that have bullied or retaliated to bullying.”
He gives students an egg to pass from hand to hand, which may crack without warning, while talking about it. His point: that people have different sensitivity levels, and nobody knows what it feels like to be the one repeatedly hurt, until he or she breaks.
WHEN YOUR BESTIE IS A MILLION MILES AWAY
Another risk facing youngsters and adults who are online 24/7 is isolation, particularly if they end up guilty about what they have found or are doing there.
Four out of 10 kids don’t want to share their concerns, fears or shame because it is awkward and also because they don’t want the punishment of having their phones taken away, says McCoubrey.
“We need to find a new way to engage with them to discuss these concerns without judgment or withdrawing them from their community, or their feelings can snowball into anxiety and depression.”
A lot of eye contact is very important for developing empathy
Clinical psychologist Hugo Theron
But this digital connectedness has advantages as well as risks. Shy children and nonconformists can find like-minded friends online and can still socialise when it’s not safe to meet up physically, says Theron.
He notes, however, that some developmental functions cannot happen virtually. For instance, he says: “A lot of eye contact is very important for developing empathy.”
Adults complain about the tech diet their children are on, but often children experience their parents as distracted. Even babies do.
Dr Michelle Ponti, chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s digital health task force, notes: “Healthy screen use doesn’t disrupt in-person interactions, physical activity, sleep, or school in primary school children and adolescents.”
Old-style parenting — having a relationships (not primarily by phone), sharing screen-free meals and setting boundaries — is still a sure way to manage screen use, the experts say. McCoubrey, Ponti and other specialists in this field all recommend a family media plan for meaningful screen use.
“It’s important not to advocate a one-size-fits-all approach to achieving healthy online engagement because value systems within families and the resources they have access to vary,” Oosthuizen says.
“Furthermore, fear-mongering to get young people to curb their smartphone use might be effective in the immediate and short term, but ultimately we need to establish sustainable long-term solutions.”