Unplugging may improve social skills, study suggests

A recent study suggests taking some tech-free time may improve tweens’ ability to recognize emotional cues from others.


The study, published in the academic journal “Computers in Human Behavior,” tested two classes of sixth graders (aged 11, 12, and 13 years old) on their ability to recognize nonverbal emotional cues. This was done by asking the participants to infer the emotional states of people in photographs and scenes from silent videos. One class of sixth graders then attended a five day nature camp, where the use of televisions, computers, and mobile devices was not permitted. The less fortunate sixth grade class stayed home, attended school, and maintained their current media habits which was, according to the surveyed sixth graders, about four and a half hours per day of media use. Both classes were tested again after the lucky sixth grade class returned home from camp.


After only five days, the sixth graders who spent five days away from technology significantly improved in their ability to read facial emotion– improvement the other sixth grade class did not match. You can read the original study here.


This study should be encouraging to parents (and teachers, therapists, grandmas, grandpas, and anyone who works with kids). In less than a week, these kids exhibited significant, measurable improvement. That means you don’t have to permanently ban all electronic devices from your home to promote your kids’ social development. Just a week or so at a time, perhaps during a family vacation or a portion of a school break, will help your kids to see and understand the people around them.


There’s no need to go overboard, though, because thanks to this study, we also can see that, given a little space, our kids will grow up and figure things out. The five day camp in this study was NOT emotional IQ boot camp or intensive social skills training– it was just a nature camp. The tweens didn’t need an intervention; they only needed a reason to log off and be present. As adults, we can give the kids in our care the incentive to unplug by modelling and insisting on tech-free times and spaces. If we make screen-free time normal, these kids will grow into adults who understand how and why to maintain healthy media habits.


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Smartphones “exacerbate the difficulties of growing up,” Melinda Gates writes in Washington Post editorial

Melinda Gates helped invent Microsoft Publisher and Expedia. You’d think she would be well prepared to help her kids navigate technology.


Bill and Melinda Gates are undoubtedly wonderful parents. But, according the Washington Post editorial Melinda penned titled, “I spent my career in technology, I wasn’t prepared for its effect on my kids,” she was floored by how quickly social media has enthralled teens and tweens.


“The challenges my younger daughter will be facing when she starts high school in the fall are light-years away from what my elder daughter, who’s now in college, experienced in 2010. My younger daughter’s friends live a lot of their lives through filters on Instagram and Snapchat, two apps that didn’t even exist when my elder daughter was dipping a toe in social media.”


The Gates’ conservative parenting approach to technology has made the news before– just a few months ago, Bill told The Mirror he and Melinda waited until their kids turned fourteen years old before giving them cell phones. They also have an evening curfew for the internet and require all phones to be turned off during dinner.


Other tech moguls seem to agree that kids should have limited contact with the technology their parents created. Steve Jobs, Chris Anderson (chief executive of 3D Robotics), and Evan Williams (founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium) have all been reported to have strict screen time rules for their kids.


Mrs. Gates’ advice dovetails perfectly with other experts’ recommendations for parents limiting screen time:


*Learn about the issue

She recommends the Atlantic‘s piece titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” We second the recommendation– the article would be a great one to read and discuss with teens and tweens.


Dinnertime is an especially rewarding time to be screen-free, writes Melinda.

*Have tough conversations

Kids are exposed to intense realities of life online. Be ready to have tough conversations and keep an open dialogue, especially about pornography and sex, cyberbullying, and current events.

*Advocate for your kids

Melinda writes hear about ensuring college students have access to mental health care. But advocating for your kids can mean setting responsible limits on technology use and being aware of kids spend their time online in addition to supporting their mental health at any age.

*Make a Plan

All families should have a family media plan with guidelines on the quantity and quantity of media consumed in your home and by your family. Read our tips for creating a family media plan here!


You can read the full Washington Post editorial by Melinda Gates by clicking here!


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Your phone distracts you more than you know

Think you can fire on all cylinders with your smartphone out? Think again. A new study suggests simply your smartphone’s presence drains your brain power.


Researchers recruited 520 undergraduate students and randomly assigned them to one of three groups. One group was asked to leave all their belongings outside the lab. The students in the second group were asked to bring their phones into the lab and place them face-down in a certain place on their desks. The third group of students was instructed to bring all belongings into the lab and keep their phones “wherever they ‘naturally’ would.” All the students completely silenced their phones before beginning the experiment. The students then completed a variety of assignments and tasks designed to measure attention and cognitive capacity and answered questions such as:


“When completing today’s tasks, how often were you thinking about your smartphone?”

“How much / in what way do you think the position of your cellphone affected your performance on today’s tasks?”

“In general, how much do you think your cellphone usually affects your performance and attention span?”


And other questions to measure the students’ perceived effects of smartphone presence on their performance on the day of testing and in general.


No matter the location of their smartphones, almost all the students believed their phones had not and did not affect their performance. However, the students whose phones were in the other room performed best out of all three groups on the tasks measuring both cognitive capacity and attention, and the students whose phones were on their desks performed the worst on their tasks.


The students also answered questions about their dependence on and emotional attachment to their smartphones, such as whether or not they agreed with such statements as “I would have trouble getting through a normal day without my cell phone” or “Using my cellphone makes me feel happy.” Interestingly, students who said they felt dependent on their smartphone were more cognitively impaired by its presence than those who said they liked using their phones. Our brains seem to be wise enough to be pulled more by what we need than what we enjoy.


In a world where life is often a race against time, this study should make us think. None of the students checked their phones during the study– not even once– yet those close to their phones were measurably distracted. Do we work longer and longer hours because our smartphones are siphoning away our attention and brain power? What are the implications for driving– an activity for which focused attention is literally the difference between life and death?


Perhaps this study should be required reading for Driver’s Ed.


To read more this study, titled “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity” and published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, click here and here!


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How to keep your kids sane on Instagram

The “Facebook Effect” has been well-documented over the last decade– the more time one spends on Facebook, the more likely one is to feel depressed. However, Instagram makes Facebook look well-rounded. Glossy, bright, carefree– no one mopes, rants, or stands on soapboxes on Instagram.


The Instagram Effect, then, is the Facebook Effect taken to extremes. The incentives to look glamorous and perfect on Instagram are real: popularity, instant validation, and money. That’s right– some users even get paid to post pictures of themselves wearing a certain outfits or using certain products. Endorsements are not reserved for celebrities anymore. These “professional” Instagrammers are simply ordinary people who have gathered a large following on social media. They can be paid hundreds, even thousands, of dollars per post.  With such high stakes, it’s no wonder everyone, especially young people, is a little obsessed.


For those of us on the other side of the screen, scrolling through so many glossy photos can skew our perception of our life, our relationships, and our success. Tweens and teens are particularly vulnerable to this Instagram Effect. Among Generation Z, social media is used as status symbol and a weapon. While it may be mildly depressing to scroll through a friend’s vacation photos, it really stings to log on and see photos of a (seemingly) fabulous party to which you were not invited.


How can parents help teens keep perspective? An open dialogue is vital. Here are some pieces to kick it off:



“My So-Called (Instagram) Life” by Clara Dollar– A Modern Love article published in The New York Times describing how one young woman’s focus on creating her personal brand on social media led to the sacrifice of her authenticity.


An Australian Instagram model with over 600,000 followers edited the captions on old social media posts to provide the less glamorous backstory. She now advises those who see posts, “Be aware of what people promote… Ask yourself, what’s their intention behind the photo?




Dove’s Self-Esteem project focused on helping young women love their bodies despite the toxic comparisons facilitated by social media.



How do you help your kids avoid the Instagram Effect? Share your ideas in the comments!


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BYU Study Asks Why You ‘Like’ Social Media

All Facebook users are not created equal. Some post daily, if not more. Others post monthly, if not less. Facebook can be a political forum or a mommy blog, an advertising platform or an eternal yard sale. Research about social media often lumps users together and assumes homogeneous use, but the truth about social media users is varied and complex.


A group of communications professors at Brigham Young University recognized this gap in social media research and chose to focus on individual social media users in a new study titled “I ♥ FB: A Q-Methodology Analysis of Why People ‘Like’ Facebook.” They asked a simple question: Why? Why do 890 million people log on to Facebook every day?


The study’s findings highlighted four categories of Facebook users: Relationship Users, Town Criers, Selfies, and Window Shoppers.


Relationship Builders viewed Facebook as a digital expansion of their off-line social circle. The mommy bloggers of Facebook, the Relationship Builders fill your newsfeed with eye candy: beautiful wedding photos, angelic children, and fabulous vacations. For them, Facebook is about people– another form of social interaction.


Town Criers focus more on news and current events than their personal lives– they put the “media” in social media. Town Criers find their voice through social media, taking a stand and promoting causes that are important to them. For a Town Crier, social media allows him or her to be more influential and shape the world.


Selfies have so far gotten the brunt of social media research focus. The Selfies log on for the attention and the “likes.” The dopamine rewards to the brain are real, and the Selfies know that more followers and more likes equal more happy feelings. We all know someone who is a Selfie, but be aware– the authors of the study say there’s a little bit of Selfie in all of us.


Window Shoppers are largely on Facebook to browse, not to post. They may feel a social obligation to log on, or they may perceive Facebook as the easiest way to stay up to date on friends’ and family members’ lives. For Window Shoppers, Facebook is the online equivalent of people watching.


To read more about the study, click here and here!


While these four categories are generalizations, they provide new depth to past social media research. For example, users that browse social media but not post, as Window Shoppers do, are more likely to feel depressed after using social media. Rather than disengaging with social media completely then, which may be unrealistic, these users may benefit from becoming more like Relationship Builders. If one’s social media dynamic is unhealthy, recognizing different motivations and uses for social media can be extremely helpful. In this way, we can take the healthiest aspects of social media use and inhibit the harmful aspects. Furthermore, the unhealthy dynamics of social media use surface off-line as well: low self-esteem, comparing oneself to others, developing unrealistic perceptions and expectations. Understanding the full social media experience can only help us better understand and improve ourselves.



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Insta-SnapChat: What Parents Need to Know About Instagram’s New Features

These days, Instagram and SnapChat are the two big fish in the social media pond. Now, with Instagram’s new feature, Instagram Direct, the two are more similar than ever. Instagram Direct is a private messaging feature that allows the followers of any profile to send text, photo, or video messages. Users can choose whether to send permanent or disappearing messages– just like SnapChat.


There are two options to make messages disappear within Instagram Direct. The first is a “true” disappearing message– a picture or video is taken within the Instagram app and will automatically delete after viewing. The second is an unsend option. Users can click on a picture, text, or video message after the fact and delete it permanently.


After a “disappearing” message has expired, there’s a small grey icon and a line of text indicating a message was there.


However, if a permanent message was unsent, there’s no sign of a message at all. For parents of Instagram users, this is important to keep in mind. While the idea of teens sending ephemeral messages may make parents (understandably) squeamish, the unsend feature is even more problematic because it prevents parents from keeping tabs on their kids.


A couple other facts worth noting about Instagram Direct:

*Only the sender can unsend a message or arrange for a message to disappear automatically.

*Recipients can take a screenshot of a disappearing message through the mobile device’s screenshot function. Instagram will notify the sender immediately if the recipient took a screenshot of the message.

*The sender of a message must be a follower of the recipient, but the recipient does not need to be a follower of the sender to receive the message. So, if my account is not private, and stranger Average Joe has followed me, he can send me private photo, video, or text messages even if I don’t follow Average Joe. Parents, if Instagram is an approved social media platform in your home, require your kids’s accounts to be private! Private accounts can screen followers. Public accounts are accessible to anyone.

*As of right now, there is no way to disable Instagram Direct. Note that Instagram and Instagram Direct are now a package deal.


While it is important to stay informed about new social media platforms, parents shouldn’t assume that “old” apps stay the same. As new apps become popular, like SnapChat, older apps like Instagram will add popular features to attract new users and retain current users. Changes to popular social media apps often make the news, so keep an eye out for headlines about your kids’ favorite apps. Log in periodically and see if anything has changed. Don’t be afraid to give or rescind your approval if an app makes changes. As the social media scene grows, it has never been more important to stay in the loop!


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Police, Safety Experts Warn Against New SnapMaps

A new SnapChat feature could allow predators to see where your teen lives, where he goes to school, or her favorite hang outs. SnapMaps uses the GPS signal on smart phones to pinpoint users’ locations and identifies their location on a map. This map is visible to all the user’s friends and followers. Furthermore, users’ locations are updated each time the app is opened– not just when they share stories or send Snaps.


You might not mind a close friend knowing your teen’s location. Unfortunately, though, due to the prestige of having high numbers of social media followers, more and more teens are adding people they’ve never met in person. These virtual “friends” may not be who they say they are and could use SnapMaps to track your teen. The SnapMap locator is highly accurate, and can even identify which building the user is in.


The police in Muskegon Heights, Michagon, spoke to the local news about the new SnapChat feature. “We want young people, adults as well as underage people to be careful telling people where you are, especially when you’re going to be alone or in an isolated place.” You can read the whole news story here.


The Canadian Centre for Child Protection recommends parents remind teens of the dangers of sharing one’s location online as well as allowing people they don’t know off-line access to their social media profiles. Their comments, featured in Canadian news site thestar.com are available here.


As social media grows, online street smarts are more important than ever! When evaluating social media platforms, parents should carefully research the features of each app. What seems like an innocent feature can have horrifying implications!


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internet filters

Tinder for teens? Yellow app raises red flags

For all its flaws, Tinder is at least intended for adults. Now a new dating/meet-up app, Yellow, is targeting teens as young as thirteen years old.


Yellow’s tagline is “Make new friends” but the app’s reviews suggest many users have much more than friendship on the brain.

Screenshot_2017-07-04-20-00-37 (2)






The app format is exactly like Tinder– see a profile picture, name, age, and country, swipe right to connect, swipe left to ignore. If two people both swipe right on each others’ profiles, they are connected by Yellow and can chat privately.


The app claims to restrict users younger than thirteen years old and require parental consent for minors. The parental consent requirement is only a box to check– more easily ignored than not.


Setting up a Yellow account does require entering a birth date, but Yellow can’t tell a fake birthday from a real one. Some users list blatantly fake birthdays.


This guy is definitely not one year old.

But it would be just as easy for adult to create an account with a picture of a teen and list themselves as a teenager. These lax security standards allow anyone access to Yellow.


Even a real profile pictures wouldn’t clarify the user’s age particularly well either. There’s not much difference visually between an eighteen year old and a twenty-five year old. Some users forgo the picture altogether and use a screenshot of their Snapchat profile, opening themselves up for anyone on Yellow to contact them, with or without matching first.


Now anyone online can video chat with DavidG.


And, of course, users can easily upload a picture of someone else to complete a false profile. Who would be the wiser?


For a seventeen year old girl, Yellow suggests matching with individuals between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five years old. Tinder doesn’t allow users under the age of eighteen, so Yellow could appeal to teenagers, but what are all these adults doing on a teen app? Why aren’t the twenty-somethings chatting with adults on Tinder?

Screenshot_2017-07-04-20-37-04 (1)

Too old for a teenager.


Which is a rather wide age range, especially for a minor.

Yellow doesn’t even require users to list their real names. This may protect kids’ personal information, but it also allows anonymity. And online, anonymity seems to equal trouble.


He could be a nice Harry Potter fan, but who knows?

In short, Yellow:

*Encourages underage kids to communicate privately with strangers

*Provides the perfect environment for sexting

*Pairs teens up with adults

*Encourages kids to add Yellow contacts to their other social media profiles

*Requires no parental consent

*Provides no verification that the user is who they say they are.

With red flag after red flag, Yellow is worth missing out on for your teens. Kids don’t need to make friends online– they can do that elsewhere. Parents– put this app on your family blacklist!

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Moms who compare, despair, social media study says

From the first smile to the last graduation, mothers love to announce and record children’s achievements on social media. Doing so keeps friends and family informed and compiles a journal of sorts for future perusal. Social media can even be a support system for frustrated moms. However, a recent study highlights a dark side of social media for moms– social comparison.


The “iMom Project” surveyed over 700 mothers about their social media use, parenting habits, health, and relationships. The moms who compared themselves to other parents on social media fared worse in a variety of ways. They felt more overwhelmed and less competent in their maternal role. These moms were also more likely to engage in conflicts over social media and were less likely to be satisfied with their children’s other parent. Unsurprisingly given these outcomes, these moms were significantly more depressed than the participants who did not make comparisons based on social media. The study has been published in the academic journal Computers in Human Behavior, and you can read the original study by clicking here.


The relationship between social media use and depression has been examined at length over the last decade, but tweens and teens have received the most attention in combating the “Facebook effect”– higher levels of depression and dissatisfaction after using social media. This study shows adults are also prone to comparing a friend’s glossy vacation photos to the gritty minutia of normal life. In particular, mothers are highly invested in their children’s accomplishments, and the requirements of caring for children may make social interaction online easier than face to face socializing. Tweens, teens, and mothers may all be more prone to the Facebook effect if they do a higher percentage of their socializing online than off-line. When you spend too much time interacting with online personas, it is easy to form and maintain an unrealistic view of others’ lives.


How can social media users fight the Facebook effect? Balance and self-awareness. If you are already having a bad day, find another way to unwind. Even on good days, limit the amount of time spent scrolling. The Facebook effect is particularly pronounced for “lurkers,” people who only consume social media. People who post, comment, and otherwise engage have better online experiences. Social media can be a wealth of information and support, but many of the individuals who need the most support leave this resource untapped.


How do you make the most of social media? Comment below!

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twitter tips for teens

Teens who spend more time on social media dissatisfied with life, study says

A recent study suggests that teens who spend even one hour per day on social media are more likely to be dissatisfied with life.


The paper, published by the Institute of Labor Economics, a German economic research institute, uses data from about 4,000 British individuals between the ages of ten and fifteen years old. The teens were asked about their social media usage and their level of satisfaction with five different aspects of their lives (frienships, family, school attended, academic performance, appearance) and life overall.


The teens who spent more time chatting on social networks were more likely to be unhappy with each aspect of life measured except for their friendships. Furthermore, spending as little as one hour per day on social media reduced the teens’ probability of being happy with life overall by 14%. For context, this effect is three times larger than that of being in a single parent household and also larger than the effect of playing truant from school, two other variables also examined by the study.


The results also varied significantly by gender. The girls surveyed were more negatively impacted than the boys; in particular, more time on social media hurt girls’ satisfaction with their appearance and with their academic performance.


To read the study in full, click here!


This study indicates even a little social media can impact a teen’s state of mind. Girls, in particular, are vulnerable to the shiny veneer of filtered and heavily edited social media profiles.


What can parents do? Perhaps one of the smartest decisions a parent can make is to require tweens to wait to join social media until at least age thirteen. Social media sites want participants to be thirteen or older to comply with privacy laws, and waiting until the teenage years will allow more time for children to mature, build self-esteem, and develop discernment to see through the veneer of filtered photos and edited posts. Parents should also aid in the development of this discernment and maturity by frequently talking with their children about healthy internet habits, including critical media viewing. When teens do join social media, parents should be a part of their social media circle, stay up to date on teens’ posts, and regularly co-view social media and discuss content.


To read more social media tips for parents and families, click here!


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