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Opinion: Social media pressures children to act older

Children want to appear perfect online, so they wear makeup, develop skincare routines, dress in mature clothing and eat unhealthy TikTok diets.
Image by Wejdan al Balushi
Once children get social media, it is a never-ending cycle of addiction.

When I was 10 years old, I remember multiple fifth-grade students showing off their brand-new iPhone 5s. And then I wanted one. 

Today, many children are rushing to Sephora to buy retinol they do not need. They get exposed to violent or sexual content at a young age, according to the BBC, and children are far too aware of their diet. It makes me wonder if children are growing too fast. 

The following year I got an iPod, and I downloaded Instagram and Snapchat. Looking back, 11 was too young to be active on social media. I became aware of my social standing and developed insecurities. But everyone else my age was also using social media. 

I was chronically online and it felt easier to text and post on Instagram than to speak to people face-to-face. 

By age 10, 42% of children have cell phones, according to the Child Mind Institute. Cell phones make social media more accessible to children and are a nice way for parents to know what their children are doing when they leave the house, but it is handing social media addiction right to them. 

Growing up, my household had one desktop computer, and my sister was always hogging it to update her Facebook status. So this is not to say that children won’t find their way around not having a phone. I also know parents worry about their children feeling isolated if others have phones and they do not. 

Once a child gets online, the algorithms are designed to keep them online, according to Henriette Warren, an instructor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. Social media is not looking out for children, it is trying to make money. 

“Unfortunately, that means there’s a lot of disturbing content young children might get access to,” Warren said. “For example, there’s a lot of advice seemingly from experts, such as dietitians, that have no actual training tell you that you should have these really unhealthy eating habits in order to look a certain way.”

Children are more susceptible to social media pressures, according to Warren. They feel the need to post things that are extravagant and cool to strengthen their public appearance. There is also a pervasive pressure children feel to get online. 

“It does kind of lead to that whole feeling that children are having to grow up quickly because of the taking over of a socializing agent that’s not looking out for them,” Warren said. 

Social media replaces in-person interaction with parents, teachers, trusted adults and peers, which are the preferred “socializing agents” for child development, according to Warren. 

Ellie Schwartzman, a fourth-year developmental psychology major, said time on social media takes away from time being active or creative on top of in-person interactions. 

Additionally, there are plenty of negative impacts for children being active on social media at a young age. There is a decreased amount of time children and adolescents spend hanging out with friends, dating and sleeping at night. 

“There’s increased depression, increased anxiety, increased loneliness, all the things you think of when you imagine how bad it can be are true,” Schwartzman said. 

Generation Z has been affected by social media use, but not to the same extent as young children today. The average 8 to 12-year-old in the U.S. spends four to six hours a day watching or using screens, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

“They (Gen Z) weren’t constantly being thrown an iPad to self-soothe like these kids are,” Schwartzman said. 

Alejandra Rivera, a 2024 developmental psychology graduate, said one of the more concerning effects of increased screen time is poor academic performance. Rivera, who volunteers at her sister’s elementary school, noticed most students have phones. 

“They have really short attention spans, and they’re behind in math and reading,” Rivera added. 

According to a study by the National Library of Medicine, screen time can be used for learning, but there is a significant correlation between high social media use and lower scores on standardized tests. Verbal interactions with adults help with language development, and screen time diminishes the quality and quantity of these interactions too. 

There is no definitive answer to whether or not children grow up at an earlier age because of social media, but Rivera believes children feel pressure to appear older and more mature, and I agree. 

“A bunch of little girls feel the need to get into skincare at a young age, or dress a certain way,” Rivera said. “They want to look and feel more mature than their appropriate age.” 

Warren said teaching media literacy in schools would be helpful. It would teach children to weed through false information and foster conversations about the content they consume. 

Many children are so consumed by social media, they forget to be children. There is no Michelle Obama ad telling us to play outside for 60 minutes a day anymore. Social media is influencing children on what is important, like what to eat or wear, when that should not be important to any self-identifying adult. 

After I got my first phone at 14, I was not as present. Now that is happening to young children, when they need to be present to focus and learn.

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