Banning Social Media for children and teenagers

Another plague imported from the West

During my tenure as Press Minister at the Embassy of Pakistan in France, I once attended a dinner with the Ambassador and several other dignitaries, where we dined with members of the French parliament. I was seated between two female parliamentarians, and our discussion turned to the impact of social media on families. When I mentioned that my 13-year-old daughter had a Facebook account, the ladies reacted with utter disbelief, covering their mouths in shock. They unanimously believed that children should not be allowed to use social media until they reach adulthood, under any circumstances. Taking their advice to heart, I made considerable efforts to regulate my children’s use of social media, though with limited success.

Parents have a crucial role in regulating their children’s social media use by utilizing parental control software and apps to monitor and limit usage, setting clear rules and boundaries, and maintaining open communication about the potential dangers of social media. Modelling responsible social media use and encouraging offline activities, such as family outings, sports, and reading, can help children develop a balanced approach to technology. Promoting social and community activities that foster face-to-face interaction and physical activity will further mitigate the risks associated with excessive social media use

Ironically, social media, invented by the USA and the West, was initially promoted to ensure the global permeation of their lifestyle, and political and geopolitical influence. However, they did not foresee that this very tool, designed to impose their values, customs, and preferences on the rest of the world, would eventually become a significant risk to the lives of millions of children and teenagers.

This realization did not come at once but after the office of the Surgeon General of the United States  conducted multiple studies and reports including longitudinal studies to track the same individuals over a period, providing data on how social media use impacts mental health over time. It included  cross-sectional studies where  comparison of different groups of individuals  to identify correlations between social media use and mental health indicators. It also included meta-analyses to identify broader trends and draw more robust conclusions.

The studies showed that at an individual level there are mental health concerns, such as increased anxiety and depression linked to social media use, and the rise of cyberbullying causing significant emotional distress. Additionally, excessive screen time, especially before bed, disrupts sleep patterns, affecting overall health and academic performance. The addictive nature of social media platforms encourages behaviour that interferes with daily activities and responsibilities, while constant exposure to short, rapid content is believed to reduce attention spans, impacting the ability to focus on longer, more demanding tasks.

In families, excessive social media use reduces the amount of quality time family members spend together, weakening family bonds. Parents may find it challenging to monitor and regulate their children’s social media usage, leading to potential exposure to harmful content. Families may rely more on digital communication, reducing meaningful, in-person interactions and discussions. Differences in social media use and content consumption can lead to conflicts between family members.

In society, widespread social media use leads to decreased face-to-face interactions, weakening community ties and social cohesion. While social media can connect people virtually, it can also contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness in real-life situations. Exposure to risky behaviour and content on social media can normalize such actions, particularly among impressionable teenagers. Social media can create echo chambers where individuals are exposed only to information that reinforces their existing beliefs, reducing exposure to diverse perspectives.

Based upon these findings, the Surgeon General of the United States issued recommendations emphasizing the need for stricter age verification measures, enhanced parental controls, and comprehensive education on digital literacy. Integrating safe internet use into school curricula and providing mental health support, such as counselling services and helplines. Working with social media companies to enhance content moderation and filter harmful content for minors. Promoting community and extracurricular activities as healthy alternatives, and advocating for legislation that protects young users.

In Pakistan, we tend to adopt whatever is imposed on us by the West without a cognitive decision-making process to evaluate its suitability for our individuals, families, and national fabric. As a result, social media use has permeated all levels of society without any checks and balances. Even children as young as six months old have unrestricted access to social media. Young children, some as young as three to five years old, have become social media stars, frequently appearing in social media posts. There are no effective regulations in place to govern social media use in Pakistan, and even if regulations exist, they are not being enforced. Consequently, children of all ages are becoming addicted to this phenomenon.

This addiction to social media is causing children to become increasingly detached from outdoor games and physical interactions with friends and relatives. Their interactions with their parents are often limited to basic needs such as paying school fees and providing necessities like food, clothing, and shelter. This limited interaction is eroding their emotional attachment to their parents, siblings, and relatives. Children now prefer to stay in their rooms, where they socialize with online friends, both within the country and internationally, without any parental control.

Children have unrestricted access to all types of content, including ethical and unethical, sexual and non-sexual, and religious and non-religious material. They are also exposed to extremist and non-extremist content. This lack of parental control over their children’s social media use is shaking the very foundation of our society. There is a dire need to react quickly to address this anomaly and correct it in our society.

To effectively regulate social media use by children and teenagers, a concerted effort from the government, society, and parents is essential. The government can play a pivotal role by implementing stringent age verification laws and establishing regulatory bodies to oversee social media platforms, ensuring compliance with child protection laws. Additionally, public awareness campaigns and education programmes should be launched to educate parents and children about the risks associated with social media use and the importance of digital literacy. Integrating digital literacy into school curricula and providing access to helplines and counselling services for social media-related issues are crucial steps.

Society, on the other hand, can contribute by engaging communities through workshops and seminars for parents and children to discuss the impacts of social media and share best practices for safe use.

Parents have a crucial role in regulating their children’s social media use by utilizing parental control software and apps to monitor and limit usage, setting clear rules and boundaries, and maintaining open communication about the potential dangers of social media. Modelling responsible social media use and encouraging offline activities, such as family outings, sports, and reading, can help children develop a balanced approach to technology. Promoting social and community activities that foster face-to-face interaction and physical activity will further mitigate the risks associated with excessive social media use.

The goal of these recommendations is to create a safer digital environment for children and teenagers, mitigating risks and promoting healthier development, where the government, society, and parents can work together to create a safer and healthier environment for children and teenagers.

Qamar Bashir
Qamar Bashir
The writer retired as Press Secretary the the President, and is former Press Minister at Embassy of Paikistan to France and former MD, Shalimar Recording & Broadcasting Company Limited

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