Here, he gives caregivers a lesson or two about social media and how to harness their powers for good, not bad.
I am not a good parent. I started out well, with big ambitions and the desire to do everything right.
Then I discovered that the iPad was a modern day dummy. I’ll never forget the start as his big, small fingers gripped the shiny black toy that had more computing power than the first Apollo mission.
Flashing images of color reflected in her wide eyes as she intuitively pushed and swept.
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I didn’t think my little girl was about to adopt a wellness drug called dopamine. Ok, it crossed my mind, but we wanted to eat quietly.
Today, social media has a greater influence on our children than education, religion, politics and, arguably, parenthood.
Metaphorically, our brain is plastic and constantly adapts to the environment around it. A few years ago, I made a documentary about it. But it’s the plasticity of the brain that makes social media a concern; it changes who we are.
Social networks reconnect us.
When we get a notification on social media, it sends our brain a surge of something good: dopamine, the chemical in the brain that makes us feel wonderful.
Dopamine is associated with food, exercise, love, sex, and now social media. Our brains have been reconfigured to desire likes, retweets, and emojis; in fact, MRI scans show that the brains of heavy social media users are like those of drug addicts.
I first noticed the indents when I saw the crazy look in my daughter’s eyes as I battled Minecraft from its grip.
Social media also shapes the way we see ourselves.
Research shows that the more time we spend on social media, the more miserable we become.
The reason? Comparison. The sophisticated adult minds who designed these apps know that our brains process pictures 60,000 times faster than words, and that we are all born with an innate desire to compare.
So what’s the problem with surrounding yourself with perfectly edited images on Instagram or TikTok?
Again, it is the remarkable plasticity of our brains. Constant exposure to screened faces and idealized bodies reorients our brains to believe this is the norm – and we are the outlier.
We internalize this manufactured ideal of beauty. Social media is an amplifier of envy, and research shows that it takes less than 10 seconds in their grip for dissatisfaction to set in.
This dissatisfaction becomes self-sustaining. When our kids hit the “Like” button, the algorithm sends them similar images, locking them into an echo chamber of discontent and insecurity.
It is often a flood of sexualized images and the children get younger. The average age of first exposure to online pornography in Australia is eight to 10 years old, most by accident.
At this age, children don’t have benchmarks for relationships, so for some, pornography becomes the benchmark.
Now back to my inept parenthood. I don’t intend to take technology out of my children’s lives; in fact, I encourage them to take full advantage of it.
Not so long ago, another beginning: that same little girl, now a teenager, stared at the shiny black phone on a window sill, her fingers no longer small and fat.
“Alright, daddy,” she said with a mischievous smile. “When the countdown ends, do the moves I showed you. Ready?”
Tic … Tac … Tic … Tac. Now it’s my eyes that have widened. Here we are…
How to use your time wisely (on screen)
Yes, it’s possible to co-parent with social media, says Todd Sampson. You just need to follow a few practical guidelines:
No social media before bed
Neuroscience shows that the prefrontal cortex (the rational part of the brain) turns off at night for children and their amygdala (the emotional center) takes over. This makes them more vulnerable to negative comments and bullying online.
Research shows that it can help reset the natural levels of dopamine in our brains. We now spend around 40% of our waking hours on the internet, so a little less time can help break the grip of addiction.
Social media is conditioning our children to process information quickly, not understand it – a role we as parents can play.
To do this, I often join them in their virtual quests to understand the dangers and better understand them because what they see helps to neurologically determine who they are. Scary, I know.
Todd Sampson’s Mirror Mirror begins Wednesday and continues Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on Network 10 and 10 Play on demand.
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