How technology and social media is undermining family relationships

Nine- and 10-year-olds throwing “flash” tantrums worthy of a toddler; a 13-year-old on the school bus receiving “dick pics” on her phone; little children feeling “lonely” in families where everyone is “always on” tech.

This is not life in some dystopian society of the future – it’s happening in families across the country.

Eithne Ní Dhraighneáin’s therapy room in west Cork is full of baskets and shelves containing a multitude of traditional toys: baby dolls, doll’s houses, play figures, dress-up clothes, Dinkys and even a punchbag.

Ní Dhraighneáin, a specialist child-centred play therapist based in Clonakilty, is familiar with the issues faced by families grappling with the unprecedented consequences of tech.

“Toys are their words,” says Ní Dhraighneáin of the children, aged from three to 16, who come to her for help.

Some of these children may express feelings of loneliness or of not belonging in a family where use of tech is high, and parents and older siblings are too preoccupied by their screens to pay attention to them.

Where a parent is not engaging with the child because he or she is on their phone a lot, or when a device is routinely given to a young child to distract or to reward, parent and child are missing out on an important opportunity for connection, she believes.

“I have significant concerns about the impact of the lack of boundaries and limits in relation to the use of tech on what we would have viewed as normal communication within the family,” she observes.

Other children, she reports, can feel terrified of the world around them as a result of exposure to violent – and often very age-inappropriate – computer games.

Violent play

Over the past 12 years, warns Ní Dhraighneáin, she has seen a rise in primary school-aged children who engage in aggressive and even violent play, killing and decapitating play-figures, but are fearful of the world around them.

Young children are not yet fully grounded in the world, she explains.

“The fantasy violence in online games, for example, can become their reality. This blurring of fantasy and reality may result in children feeling ‘very afraid of the world they live in’ as a result of over-exposure to such games. Children aged 10 are playing games created for 18-year-olds. Often the games are bought for them by an adult who may not realise the impact on them, or they play them in other people’s houses.”

"My fear is that the small subtleties of normal human interaction with a child don’t happen."

New research shows children are spending considerable amounts of time on tech devices – a study published by Center Parcs Ireland in April revealed that three out of four children in Ireland aged 16 or under have at least one technological device.

The study revealed that children spend an average of three hours daily on these devices, and that 83 per cent of parents surveyed found the use of technology and social media in the home to be a challenge.

Dún Laoghaire-based play therapist Aran Byrne is concerned about the impact on the emotional and social skills of small children in families where high usage of mobile devices and exposure to tech games is the norm.

“Devices are used to pacify small children of three or four years of age,” he observes. “Where once a toddler would have learned to manage difficult emotions through interacting with a parent who would help them regulate their feelings, now they’re being handed a tech device. The interaction with the parent is not happening,” he warns.

Yet, crucially, young children need the parent to teach them to manage their emotions, but if parents themselves are often “on” devices (research published by Deloitte last year showed Irish people check their devices an average of 57 times a day, while 16 per cent checked 100 times daily – this guidance is not always available. “My fear is that the small subtleties of normal human interaction with a child don’t happen,” says Byrne.

Eye contact

Each time a parent distracts an upset child with a device instead of making eye contact, talking to, soothing and picking up the child, he believes, a crucial teaching opportunity can be lost.

This can happen on a constant basis as most parents have devices with them everywhere – home, car, park. “The ‘distraction’ is happening very frequently with a lot of families,” observes Byrne, adding that he is increasingly dealing with children who are “more snappy and irritable and less able to manage their emotions”.

He’s also seeing more and more children of nine and even 10 years of age throwing tantrums. “They are quicker to lose their cool and get angry. They will disengage, or flash to anger when their ‘wants’ are not met. They are less able to manage their emotional states than they would be through learning how to interact and negotiate from parents or other care-givers.”

Byrne believes this phenomenon is linked to overexposure to tech and particularly to online games and apps which are designed to give the brain frequent neurological “hits” or “bursts” of satisfaction – and with which children as young as four are now engaging.

According to the April research, 57 per cent of parents surveyed were unhappy with the amount of time their children currently spent using technology, with one in four revealing that an addiction to social media, online games and YouTube was their biggest concern for their children. But it’s not always easy to come between children and tech either. In 40 per cent of cases, researchers found attempts by parents to stop children using technology resulted in an argument. In fact, only 29 per cent of parents surveyed frequently stopped their children from using technology.

Children enjoy the gratification “hits” offered by virtual games – which don’t happen like this in the real world, so when children are interacting with other people, irritability can surface, Byrne explains.

“The real world is less ‘manageable’ and the level of control is less, compared to what they get in the games, so you see these flashes of anger or the need to control and have everything set out the way they want it to be.”

Long-term impact

While Byrne is careful to emphasise that we don’t know for sure what the long-term impact might be on children who use devices regularly from an early age, there does appear to be cause for concern.

“Children’s ability to manage expectations and disappointment in relationships seems to have disimproved, because these games are devised in such a way that the interaction is very satisfying. However, human interaction takes more work, concentration and negotiation, which you don’t have to do in a game.”

Neuroscience has shown, he says, that we need to interact with other people to develop into healthy human beings. “My concern would be that overuse of these devices in the home interferes with this crucial early learning.”

Unlimited use of tech also seems to disrupt the flow of normal family life by interrupting normal parent-child interactions, according to Ní Dhraighneáin.

Allowing access to technology without setting expectations around its use can result in stresses to the child-parent relationship, she warns, adding that where usage is high, there can also be less awareness of what is going on in children’s lives.

“The emotional connection within the family is not as strong as it could be. The quality of the relationship and interaction is impacted on by the presence of the devices. In the family car, for example, you might have three children in the back seat with their own devices so there’s little to none of the traditional interaction or turn-taking,” she says, adding that ruptures in the relationship between child and parent can occur.

“If your child is allowed on the phone regularly this can result in a lack of opportunity to talk and connect as members of the family. Family relationships are being diluted by the presence of this third party,” says Ní Dhraighneáin, who urges parents to provide an environment that allows their children to develop physically, intellectually, socially and emotionally, through play and by reading books, making eye contact and learning how to understand non-verbal cues.

“Empathy, for example, needs to be modelled and taught,” she explains. “It allows children to see another person’s point of view/perspective and is the biggest indicator of a child with a healthy social and emotional development.”

TEENAGER TRAPPED IN A SOCIAL MEDIA LOOP

Shortly after starting first year in her local secondary school, Alice’s 13-year-old daughter began to complain about getting stabbing pains in her stomach. The young girl, who had only received her first phone towards the end of sixth class, seemed to need to check her phone constantly. “She couldn’t put it down,” recalls Alice. “I hadn’t seen that with her older sister.”

Suspecting the anxiety had something to do with the phone, Alice brought her daughter to a play therapist. Several sessions later, the therapist was able to tell Alice that every morning as soon as her daughter boarded the school bus and opened her phone she was inundated with messages and graphic sexual images.

Alice discovered that, like many of the other first-year students, her daughter was on a number of social media apps including the controversial anonymous messaging Sarahah app, which was removed from the Apple and Google stores earlier this year amid claims that it had been facilitating bullying. The company’s chief executive denied the claims and said the app wasn’t meant for use by younger teens.

“The girls were uploading images of themselves and people were anonymously commenting on them,” recalls Alice. “She was getting on the bus to school and being inundated with all sorts of messages as well as getting multiple ‘dick pics’.”

She didn’t know how to deal with it – let alone tell her parents. “When I heard this, I was blown away. I am still trying to cope with the fact that she literally didn’t know how to get out of this social media app – not technically, but in terms of peer pressure – and that she never spoke about this to us.”

“Some kids are more vulnerable than others and tech exploits that. It plays to all the biggest social factors of young adolescence – wanting to be part of the gang and not wanting to miss out on things.”

Much of what tweens and teenagers receive on social media is “hidden” from parents, believes Alice, whose daughter has since deleted several social media apps from her phone.

“The communication, and the images, are so fast, and are gone so quickly. I couldn’t monitor it all. The pictures and messages they get can be destructive. The nature of the communications in tech has made it very difficult for children to tell their parents about it.

“I was not being told because she didn’t know how to handle it. I only got to know because of the tummy pains,” says Alice.

Her daughter, she says, could receive “something soul-destroying in the split second that I turned around to switch on the kettle. The damage is done and I don’t even see it happening. I was completely missing the damage being done to her, and that is where tech really becomes dangerous.

“We were out for a meal recently. A family of six was sitting at another table – two parents and four children aged from around about four to about 15. Every member of the family was on a screen. There was no talking. They ordered the food and went back to their screens. When the food came they put the screens down beside their plates and ate while watching the screens. This is becoming the norm. The social implications are massive.

“Tech is really making things hard for you as a parent, you can never be sure what role it’s playing in your family. And even if you do everything you can, you still can’t be sure you’re keeping them safe.”

Tips from play therapist Eithne Ní Dhraighneáin
– Wait until at least sixth class to give children their own phone.
– Consider what social media services your child can use.
– Ban devices from all family meals.
– Create an expectation that all devices are routinely turned off up to two hours before bedtime.
– Consider unplugging the wireless router at night.
– Charge all devices in one location, preferably downstairs.
– No devices in bedrooms including the parental bedroom.
– Read to your child.
– Provide play alternatives for children.
– Set a time limit on weekend screen time.
– When it comes to setting limits around the use of tech, practise what you preach.