For most children/adolescents, social media platforms are a popular means of getting to know new people. It was the same for 14-year-old Vikram (alias) when he started using Instagram. The only difference was that while other children spoke to people their age about trivial things, Vikram engaged with strangers all over the world and sent them sexually inappropriate content. With his parents living in a different city, there was no one to correct him until his school counsellor found out.
Over time, Vikram worked with another counsellor, Dr Milan Balakrishnan, who said the boy initially reduced and regulated his time on social media. However, during times of distress, Vikram reneged back to the same activities on the platform. According to Balakrishnan, Vikram faces more pressure these days, preparing for his 10th-grade exams.
Vikram is not alone. Pooja Sengupta, faculty at the Department of Psychology at Bhawanipur Education Society College, said that the youths in her class have been using Facebook since they were 11 years old even though the minimum age for being on the platform is 13 years.
“[Users on social media platforms] don’t know to whom [they] are speaking [with]. Now, [adults] have the cognitive development or mental capacity to understand, see, verify the information or the identity of the person, but this doesn’t work with the young children. They get very easily influenced,” she said.
Sengupta also talked about how many children with an addiction to social media have ended up with porn addiction as well. “[On] social media, there are different types of advertisements that we get… So, there are advertisements [such as] of lingerie. These are very basic [visuals] which make [children] curious. And to satisfy that curiosity, now they move on to different videos and other supportive channels to see where this is coming from, if they can get more videos or not,” she said.
Addiction to the Internet increasing since Covid-19
In July 2021, a study by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights looked at the impact of internet accessibility on children. As per the study, more than 9 in 10 children considered themselves to be living in a world that is ‘addicted to cell phones’. Over a third of the children and adolescents said they view smartphones as ‘the ultimate entertainment device’ yet around 35 percent of children said they are making ‘Very High’ or ‘High’ use of the internet for education.
All of this goes to confirm experts’ claims that more children have developed an internet dependency–an umbrella term referring to various forms of online addiction like addiction to social media, porn, gaming, and excessive surfing–since the lockdown period during the Covid-19 pandemic. Balakrishnan, with 13 years of experience as a psychiatrist, particularly said that internet dependency has intensified during this period.
“Before Covid-19, we were seeing a lot of children in the 13-to-15-year age group [with internet dependency]. Now, we started seeing a lot of children also in the 7-to-10-year age group, which wasn’t there before. We could say [that the number of internet dependency cases] may have gone up about three times compared to before,” said Balakrishnan.
STAY ON TOP OF TECH POLICY: Our daily newsletter with top stories from MediaNama and around the world, delivered to your inbox before 9 AM. Click here to sign up today!
Why has this happened?
During the lockdown period, almost all children had online school and they were exposed to various devices, at times earlier than intended by parents, said Balakrishnan. Like an office employee who may glance at their phone during a meeting, these children began to engage on social media while the online classes were in session.
“What tends to happen is that social media and media in all forms is meant to keep you hooked… younger children are more vulnerable and also more difficult to get off [of these platforms] because there is more difficulty working with them cognitively. Parents have to take a more [prominent] role in helping [counsellors/ psychiatrists] keep them away or at least in terms of regulating their social media use,” said Balakrishnan.
Another contributing factor is the parents/guardians’ own use of smartphones or similar devices. This makes children curious about the device and the internet and leads towards conflicts when the adult disallows the child from doing what they themselves are doing.
Are there behavioural patterns that indicate such addiction?
Sengupta has observed angry outbursts or an irritable mood to be common indicators of internet dependency. Adolescents and children struggle to verbalise their emotions because they fear being judged for their thoughts or feelings. This leads to a communication gap between the parent and child.
Further, Sengupta noted that youths have become more comfortable interacting virtually rather than in-person.
“During our times, we used to have a little notion whether a classmate is coming to class, why she is absent. This interaction is lessening among classmates. So their social interaction in actual space is reducing,” she said.
Moreover, Balakrishnan said that the patterns vary from child to child. However, children themselves notice a change in their behaviour gradually when their teachers complain about their academic performance or they become more distracted in class. Balakrishnan said that many of these behavioural addictions have underlying issues like depression, anxiety, or dysfunctional families, that need to be dealt with as well. In Vikram’s case, it was his struggle with ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) and subjects like science.
“There were a lot of other issues in school also where he would get into arguments with teachers. There’s always a deeper issue. It isn’t as simple as just problematic social media use. There are usually some mental health issues, which [are] more severe,” said Balakrishnan.
What are platforms doing to address this?
MediaNama reached out to two popular social media platforms, Snapchat and Instagram, to ask about platform regulations to address concerns around social media addiction. The following are some of the measures the platforms listed to protect children online:
Age verification: Instagram began using an age-verification mechanism in India around October 2022. Users trying to change their date of birth and raise their age above 18 years are asked to verify their age by doing either of the following: uploading their ID; recording a video selfie; or asking a mutual friend to verify their age. Meanwhile, Snapchat requires individuals to be over 13 years and prevents users with existing accounts from updating their birthday.
Age-gating content for minors: Instagram set up a sensitive content control with three options: Standard (default setting), Less and More. The “Less” option minimises the sensitive content seen by a user whereas the “More” option allows people to see more sensitive content and accounts. This option is only meant for people above 18 years. Meanwhile, sexually explicit content is prohibited on Snapchat. For teenagers, sexually suggestive content is also prohibited from appearing on their screens.
Age-appropriate ads: Snapchat restricts advertisements based on the user’s age. For example, ads for dating services must be age-targeted to people over 18 years and “must not be provocative, overtly sexual in nature, or reference transactional companionship.” Alcohol-related ads must be age-targeted to people over 18+ years or the applicable minimum drinking age in the respective country.
Family Center: On Instagram, this helps parents/guardians manage their ward’s time on the platform, view the child’s followers and following and lets the adult know if their ward has reported someone. On Snapchat, parents can understand who their teens are speaking to and prompt conversations about staying safe.
Restricting interaction with strangers: For individuals below 16 years, Instagram offers more privacy settings to help children filter who can see their friends list, the content they follow, posts they are tagged in and who is allowed to comment on these posts. Snapchat makes it harder for strangers to find teenagers. “For example, teens only show up as a “suggested friend” or in search results in limited instances, like if they have multiple mutual friends in common,” said the Snapchat spokesperson.
Can measures like age verification and restricting access prove effective?
Sengupta supported the idea of age verification suggesting some means of documentation to get the actual age or the identity of the person. However, Balakrishnan was sceptical of the move.
“If there’s a restriction, there will be a workaround. Finally, most social media platforms will have to have restrictions in place as a part of their social responsibility. That isn’t exactly best for their business. And this young age group is the group that is likely to be influenced by things happening on the social media platform, including being responsible for the purchases being made by the parents,” said Balakrishnan.
During a roundtable discussion organised by MediaNama, experts on this topic also talked about how certain suggested measures like age verification can invade a child’s right to privacy. For example, a child may want to seek counselling or need protection from the parent/guardian in question. In such a situation, age verification or even tools like parental control can be dangerous for the child.
At the time, Aparajita Bharti, Co-Founder of the Young Leaders for Active Citizenship and Founding Partner at The Quantum Hub, said that better solutions need to come from the tech community that “is not giving many other solutions to the government.” She asked for solutions that look at verification proportionate to a particular use case without having to resort to a KYC-like process.
The real impact of platform regulation
Speaking to MediaNama, Bharti said regulation should be considered with two aspects in mind–platform design and company accountability.
“[The act of] holding companies accountable if they’re not doing enough happens when somebody complains, there is litigation, and then there is [a] fine or some [sort of] enforcement on companies. We haven’t seen [that] kicking in too much. And so, platform design is the only thing that we really started to see [as a good response],” she said.
She argued that while issues like online gaming are being considered by the Indian government, it has “not taken this issue of children being online very seriously.”
“In many other countries, there’s been a lot of discussion around it specifically. For us, it’s always been just one clause in Personal Data Protection Bill. I think that should change because this is a very real a problem, and I don’t think we’ve thought enough about it,” she said.
The 2022 version of the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill removed provisions concerning mental health and psychological harms. However, there are talks of these provisions making a come-back before the bill is finally passed by the Parliament, said Bharti. Similarly, the Digital India Act is looking into child safety online. During a consultation in Bengaluru, Minister of State for Information Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar said the government has consulted parents, teachers, and student gamers “to learn about what kinds of risks and harms exist for children.” Still, there is no separate law to protect children online.
Meanwhile, in other countries…
The US, in late April 2023, introduced the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act which states that no child under the age of 13 will be allowed to access social media platforms. The 20-page document also called upon platforms to verify the age of individuals and barred them from using minors’ personal data for advertising purposes. There’s also a section about providing individuals with “a secure digital identification credential” under a ‘Pilot Program’.
Further, California state came up with an age-appropriate design code last year, similar to the code presented by the United Kingdom. According to Bharti, the UK code states that if children are at risk of addiction on a platform, the company must make changes on the platform to avoid action.
“They have created an incentive and a nudge for platforms to do better design. And I think that is the right way to go when it comes to regulation of addiction, these issues,” said Bharti.
Further, the US government also introduced a bill on February 10, 2022, that sought to tackle addiction and the amplification of harmful content on social media platforms with content-agnostic interventions. These can be understood as platform actions that alter user experience but do not rely on the substance of the user-generated content and do not alter the core functionality of the platform. The Bill asked that authorities find such potential interventions and then ask the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to formulate regulations based on these findings.
While she acknowledged platforms’ attempts to create protections for children, Bharti advised against putting too much responsibility on them. Calling such a situation “risky,” she pointed out that such a norm could raise free speech issues as well.
“I think whenever we ask platforms to do something very discretionary, then I don’t think it ends really well,” she said.
What’s the step forward?
Both mental health experts and Bharti agreed that there is a third requirement of educating children to address the issue of social media addiction. Balakrishnan suggested a discussion on the platforms about such addictions, their implication, their source, those more vulnerable to such conditions, etc.
“Children also are quite self-aware these days. If they realize that there is a problem, they will try to help themselves or at least talk to somebody, either anybody, a trusted person, either a teacher, school counselor, parent, depending on whom they feel most comfortable with. But that’s certainly something that they will do. So I think children also need to be made aware, not only parents,” said Balakrishnan.
At the end of the day, children need some sort of forum for social engagement. Social media allows them to interact with friends and check what they are doing from time to time. Peer pressure also plays a role. Another reason Balakrishnan listed was about getting away from what’s happening at home. He also talked about how addiction to social media could be genetic if a family member has a history of any sort of addiction, not specifically social media.
Note: Aparajita Bharti’s designation was expanded to include her role at The Quantum Hub for more factual accuracy at 11:08 AM on May 5, 2023.
This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.
- Is Age-Verification The Answer To Protecting Children From Online Harms? #NAMA
- Instagram Testing New Age Verification Mechanisms That Don’t Involve IDs
- Use Spyware To Curb Excessive Online Gaming Among Children, Government Advises Parents
- MP Ritesh Pandey On Data Protection Bill: Childrens Consent, DPA, Govt Access To Data; Hopes That Judiciary Will Add Checks And Balances #NAMA