Yesterday I covered the culture of fear that has been created by politics and the news media, and how that affects parenting and the brain development of children. Today we’ll talk about how social media and advertising combine to create an entirely new set of forces that are shaping our children’s minds in ways that have never been seen before. Some of it is exciting and awesome. Some of it is troubling and dangerous.
Again, it’s important to remember how much the world has changed in a very short time period. A surf-able smartphone didn’t exist until 1996. But due to capability and production limits they weren’t really in our consciousness until about 2001. Facebook was created in 2004, and Twitter in 2006. Even Google was just getting started in 1998 so, at the time of this writing, none of the people who’ve grown up with these influences from birth are even adults yet, so researchers can’t study the effects.
We may fairly ask, what are some of these effects? Here’s one: I heard an amazing stat the other day. Likely during 2015, 90% of the photos taken in history will have been taken during that 365 day year. That is a huge indicator of how incredibly important cameras have become. Many 50 year olds might only have 50 photos in total of themselves from birth to age 25. Today a child could literally have thousands.
For people who grew up in the non-digital era in a G20 nation, very few had parents who were technically motivated. Those that were may have used cameras more often, and they would have more photos. But the main issue was that it was, and is, expensive to process photos. As a result, very few people went crazy with photography. In comparison, today, a child will have more photos taken of them in a month than their parents would have had taken in a lifetime.
So what difference does it make how many photos are taken? It alters what reality is. Unlike their parents, mass photography turns that lens —that eye— something very important to the next generation. It becomes one of the ‘eyes’ that children understand they should pay attention to. Maybe even more so than actual people’s eyes.
So how does the existence of the cameras change us? As one example, if we’re talking to someone and we hold our camera up to take a photo, they’re quite likely to mug for us, or give us their best angle. This means that just the appearance of a camera changes a social setting and people interrupt their human conversation for a machine-based, ego-focused interaction. It also means we start wanting to orient live people’s perspectives of us so that they see our ‘good side.’ None of these things would happen without ‘camera-awareness.’
Another place we see this is with text messages when we’re having lunch with a friend. It’s now common for people to not look at, or pay attention to, their tablemates for large percentages of their time at the table. Essentially, smart phones have made ignoring others at a dinner table into something that is now socially acceptable to many. In fact, many parents actively teach that idea to their children by ignoring their kids in favour of focusing on texts sent from work.
Why this matters is that kids pay attention. Kids start to believe that phones are more important than people because that is exactly the behaviour everyone is actually modelling. If we watch for it, we’ll notice that kids will now choose to look at a camera lens or cell phone screen instead of looking at the people they’re with. So rather than learning how to socialize, converse, and read facial and body language cues, instead they learn how to look down and spend time in a place that exists only in their imagination —a place called cyberspace.
It’s very important for parents to remember that we all live where our consciousness is. If we’re sitting on a beautiful beach alone, thinking about how 10 years ago we were on this beach with a love we have since lost, then; despite all of the pleasures available on the beach today, we can make ourselves be sad because in our consciousness we will have chosen to relive five years ago and to unfavourably compared it to today. That is not today’s fault.
The same principle is true for kids too, except they travel less in time and more in space. I walked to school with all of my neighbourhood friends. Kids today primarily get driven or take the bus so they can have friends that live two buses away. They might be physically at home because their parents never let them go anywhere without some detailed plan. But in ‘reality’ they’re meeting their friends in cyberspace.
The important part about that fact is that, if a kid can always meet their friends in cyberspace. That means, in a way, it’s like their friends are present for every single thing that happens in our homes. This completely alters our notions around privacy and family values. And that does impact behaviour. So technology has changed society much more than people currently recognize.
Privacy for all intents and purposes no longer exists. By 16 every kid knows their email can be hacked; friends can choose to share photos they were never supposed to share; there’s revenge porn sites, and robots are crawling through everything we write and post in an attempt to understand us well enough to help advertisers sell to us when we’re most vulnerable. There’s even video and audio systems that detect crying so that they can respond to it. But to whose benefit?
I’m hardly anti-technology. I was the first person I knew with a digital watch, the first with a programmable calculator, and both a video recorder and a video camera. I was the second person I knew to get a computer and I started a large BBS system before the internet even existed. So I’m pro-technology in many ways. But with all things we must weigh the advantages against the costs. And the costs of social media are almost as high as the costs of advertising.
Whereas politics and the news media lead citizens to be unnecessarily afraid, advertising and comparative social media feeds lead us toward being insecure. After all, secure people don’t need a product to fix their insecurity. They feel confident as they are. As a result they need less, and therefore they experience lower levels of stress. So how can advertising or social media add stress?
As an example, when I was young everyone thought teeth should be teeth-coloured and so no one would have put harmful chemicals in our mouths to whiten them. But today kids will feel stressed if their teeth aren’t unnaturally white. Go backwards and my mother never knew mouthwash until she was older. And her mother never even knew tooth-brushing or that breath should smell “fresh” until she was ten years old because advertising had not created that insecurity yet.
If ‘created’ seems like a leap, consider this: the entire tooth-brushing, fresh breath movement emerged out of advertisers testing the idea of whether or not a fear could be created and leveraged into help sell a product. Obviously it worked, and now every kid has a huge list of things to feel insecure about.
Advertisers need us to think the jeans we bought last year aren’t good enough for this year. Same with our hair style, and our shoes, and our purse, and our car. There is always a new way to be ‘acceptable’ or ‘impressive’ to others. There’s always something new to buy. But do we see what this is telling our brains?
In advertising, the brain is essentially being told that a person should not be okay being who they are. If we dressed different, smelled different or sounded different, or if we had different insurance or a different address, then we would be accepted. So the suggestion is that we will not be accepted as-is. This suggests to us that love is conditional, when it is not. Only ‘approval’ is conditional, but it based in judgmental ego. As the people who truly love us know, true love for us is not conditional. It simply exists regardless of the thoughts we have around it.
What this means is that none of us really need different jeans or a different hair colour. We don’t need different music or to like different movies. We just need to love ourselves. And that’s why it is important for parents to model self respect for their children. In the end, we’re all ‘parenting’ by just living. Just like kids will watch smart phone screens because we do, they will also worry about their hair and weight because we do.
What this means is that, if we really want to parent in an amazing way that will strengthen and support kids to be all they can be, then we need to stop worrying about the bad things that might happen or the judgments we might face. Instead, we must focus on realizing the natural greatness that lives within ourselves, because that will teach children to look for that strength and capability within themselves. And that’s all they need to do. Because it’s always there waiting.
Kids live in a sea of other people telling them who they should be. We should each seek to be a person who stands out for not telling them who it would be good, or positive, or healthy, or rewarding to become. We can instead just ask them who they would most like to become, and then help them do that. That alone can create greatness.
It is my understanding that if Michelangelo’s father had had his way, his son would have been a bricklayer and we wouldn’t have the incredible Statue of David. So let’s all try to avoid getting in the way of any modern kid’s David. Let’s not help frighten them into being small and worried. The world is too awesome for that. And it will only be made more awesome by the contributions of you and your children.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.