For children of this generation, Facebook, Bebo, Twitter and MySpace are a way of life. In the UK alone, a quarter of children aged between eight and twelve have signed up to social networking sites, despite regulations that state users must be at least 13. Blissfully unaware of an age before social networking sites, children are the most vulnerable when it comes to potential dangers using social networking sites. Children who don’t understand dangers such as sexual predators, who use social networking sites to lure young victims, are at risk.
Despite online dangers, another worry is research that suggests social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter are “changing children’s brains”. Research carried out by Baroness Greenfield, a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University and the director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, suggests social networking sites are “infantilising” the minds of children. It is thought this is making children more self-centred and reducing their attention spans. This has an effect on children’s behaviour too. Children want instant gratification as they are become more ego-centric than normal at an age when they are still developing. Face to face social interaction, which is key to a child’s development, is being replaced with instant online interactions. The worry is an imbalance of social development could take away vital child development skills learnt with human interaction.
Baroness Greenfield’s revelations have caused much controversy but there are weighed observations behind the statements. For example, conversations through a computer screen are fundamentally different from spoken conversations. Online dialogue is simpler, easier and not in real-time. Spoken conversation involves developing a number of skills such as reading people, listening, interpreting social cues and signals. An increase in the lack of social interaction could contribute to a dumber generation of literates and children who ‘live for the moment’ not caring about real life consequences. Children who live in a secure online computer bubble by way of communication and interaction could potentially struggle later in life when faced with a number of real world situations such as job interviews, relationships and work.