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 your 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 different the world is than just a short time ago. A surfable 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 are even adults yet so researchers can’t study the effects.
I heard a stat the other day that either this year or last year, 90% of the photos taken in history had been taken that year. That is a huge indicator of how incredibly important cameras have become. I have maybe 50 photos in total of me from a baby to age 25. Some friends whose parents were more technically motivated used cameras more often and they would have more, but it was expensive processing pictures back then very few people went crazy. But the fact that 90% of photos were taken last year shows how insanely different the numbers are today. A child will have more photos taken of them in a month than they would have had in a lifetime. And so that lens—that eye—becomes one of the eyes they understand they should pay attention to.
How this plays out is that if you’re talking to someone and you hold your camera up to take a photo, they’re quite likely to mug for you, or give you their best angle. So just the very appearance of a camera changes the social setting and people interrupt their human conversation for a machine-based ego-focused interaction. We all see this with text messages when we’re having lunch with a friend as well. 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.
What this does is get the kids who are watching believing that phones are more important than people because that is exactly the behaviour everyone is actually modelling. So what I’m seeing now is kids who will 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 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. So if you’re sitting on a beautiful beach alone thinking about how 10 years ago you were on this beach with a love you have since lost—despite all of the pleasures available on the beach today, the person will be sad because in their consciousness they are reliving 5 years ago and comparing it to today.
The same is true for kids 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. So 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 is that if your kid can always meet their friends in cyberspace then, in a way, it’s like their friends are present for every single thing that happens in your house. Technology has changed society much more than people currently recognize.
Privacy for all intents and purposes no longer exists. By 16 every kid knows your 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 you write and post in an attempt to understand you well enough to help advertisers sell to you when you’re most vulnerable. There’s even video and audio systems that detect crying so that they can respond. Do we really want robots responding to crying?
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.
So where politics and the news media lead new citizens to be unnecessarily afraid, advertising leads them to be insecure. Secure people don’t need a product to fix their insecurity. So 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. 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 a product. Obviously it worked and now every kid has a huge list of things to feel insecure about.
Advertisers need you to think the jeans you bought last year aren’t good enough for this year. Same with your hair style and your shoes and your purse and your car. There is always a new way to be acceptable or impressive to others. There’s always something new to buy. But do you see what this is telling the brain? The brain is being told that the person is not okay being who they are they must be someone else in order to be accepted, which in other terms means that the love they receive is conditional. It is based on their alignment with what advertisers have deemed acceptable rather than being loved just for who you are right from birth. The idea that you have to add to or change yourself before you are worthy is as unfortunate as it is dangerous.
You don’t need different jeans or a different hair colour. You don’t need different music or to like different movies. You just need to love yourself. Because you’re parenting when you’re living. Just like those kids watch smart phone screens because you do, they also worry about their hair and weight because you do. So if you really want to parent in an amazing way that will strengthen and support your kids to be all they can be, then stop worrying about the bad things that might happen or the judgments they might face, and instead focus on realizing the natural greatness that lives within yourself, because that will teach your children to look for that strength and capability within themselves. And that’s all they need to do. Because it’s always there waiting.
Your kids live in a sea of other people telling them who they should be. Be the one person who stands out for not telling them who it would be good or positive or healthy to become, and instead just ask them who they would most like to become and then help them do that. Because 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 don’t get in the way of your kid’s David. Don’t 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.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.