Have you ever noticed that your kids/teens seem to always imitate your partner’s traits, mannerisms and behaviours (and it’s usually their worst traits)? Have you noticed that when you accidentally swear in front of a young child, a couple of days later they drop the exact same clanger, often in the most inopportune of times in front of their teacher or grandparents? Have you noticed that when you see someone else yawning, before you know it, you are too? Our behaviours, mannerisms, language and even our thoughts can be contagious. Why is this the case? We have mirror neurons.
As humans we’re wired to imitate. We’re biologically designed to copy other humans. This skill is acquired early in life and is integral to our development. In fact, eye-tracking measures suggest that mirror neuron systems are developed prior to an infant’s first birthday. It is this system that helps infants interpret and understand other human behaviour.
There’s scientific evidence to explain why we imitate as humans. We have mirror neurons. We’re designed to follow actions that we view. Our mirror neurons respond to actions that we observe in other humans. We also know that mirror neurons also fire when we reproduce the action we’d previously only observed. So our mirror neurons play a critical role in how we develop behaviour, language and even our thought processes.
Mirror neurons is a relatively recent scientific discovery in the 1990’s by studies done with monkeys. However, they’ve always been part of our neurobiology as humans.
Dire digital contagions
Now whilst mirror neurons can help us learn a range of critical human behaviours, skills and competencies, in recent times there are some dire consequences related to how our mirror neurons are functioning in a digital context. I’ll outline my three greatest concerns below:
1. Dangerous social media challenges and advice
Sadly, I’ve been inundated with stories in the last 18 months from parents and caregivers whose children and teens have sustained serious and sometimes even fatal injuries from participating in dangerous social media challenges. From the planking challenge to the blackout challenge, young people are watching these challenges online and are being encouraged to copy (and then share and use hashtags online to spur their peers to do the same). There are reports of very serious head injuries and I personally know of two fatalities that resulted from the blackout challenge, in the last 15 months.
We also have influencers and micro-influencers espousing unsafe and sometimes downright dangerous advice on social media platforms (often devoid of any regulation or vetting). Young people are absorbing and emulating this advice. Everything from dieting advice and self-harm tutorials, to guidance on how to fake illnesses and disorders so that they can be prescribed specific medications with known side-effects. At the time of writing this blog many teenage girls are being encouraged to suggest that they have attentional issues so that they can be prescribed medication that is known to also be an appetite suppressant.
2. Exposure to pornography
Our kids and teens are seeing pornography at younger and younger ages. Many young people now say that it’s harder to avoid it, than it is to find it. Now, let’s be honest and acknowledge that many parents don’t feel comfortable talking about the ‘birds and the bees’ let alone talking about pornography. But the sad reality is that if we’re not having direct and explicit conversations with our kids about pornography then they’re watching it and because of their mirror neurons, they’re copying it.
Health professionals are anecdotally reporting that increasing numbers of young people are suffering serious anal and genital injuries sustained from sexual behaviours and practices that are imitating the pornography that they’re watching. Why? No one is having explicit conversations with our young people about how the pornography that they’re consuming (and please know that it’s boys and girls who are watching it) is NOT a depiction of a loving consensual relationship. As a result, they imitate pornography.
Please don’t think this is a topic just for parents of adolescents. Teachers in primary schools are reporting increasing numbers of young children in primary school engaging in sexualised playground behaviours.
3. Social media and mental health
There’s also speculation, although not yet substantiated by a corpus of research at this stage, that some young people’s excessive and/or inappropriate social media consumption is having a dire impact on their mental health. Consistent studies suggest that young people’s mental health outcomes are deteriorating. Rates of depression, anxiety, suicide and a range of other mental health issues are increasing. Whilst it may be premature and not scientifically-validated to claim that social media is to exclusively blame, I think many is us would concur that it’s very likely to be contributing in some way to the youth mental health issues we’re seeing (let’s not overlook the fact that COVID lockdowns and isolation are also very likely to have contributed too).
Some are suggesting that we’re living in the ‘Age of Digital Social Contagions’. Dr Nicholas Kardaras suggests in this New York Post article, “It’s a time where certain illnesses aren’t spread by biological transmission, but by a digital infection that attacks the psychological immune system. Using algorithms that find and exploit our psychological vulnerabilities, we get sicker as Big Tech gets stronger.” The algorithms appear to be working against our kids and teens, by serving them up more and more of the dangerous content they’ve interacted with.
Earlier in 2022, an Australian 60 Minutes episode explored a possible correlation between Tik Tok and other social media consumption and increases in Tourette’s diagnoses. Now the research isn’t solid in this space yet, but do we wait for empirical evidence to prove that there’s a possible link between excessive social media consumption and poor mental health, for some young people? I hope not.
What can parents and caregivers do?
// Have ongoing and repeated conversations – constantly talk with young people about what they’re consuming online. Make it a dialogue and not just a one-way conversation. Ask open-ended questions and allow them to talk. Share anecdotes and stories of relatable teens where things have not ended well for other young people. This is also not a ‘one and done’ conversation- you’ll need to be repeatedly talking about these issues.
// Minimise their use of devices late at night – the logical part of their brain is depleted and not functioning well and their emotional part of the brain, the amygdala, fires up at night. So they’re much more likely to consume and be adversely impacted by dangerous or unhelpful information when their prefrontal cortex isn’t properly functioning and instead operating in an emotional state.
// Keep devices in publicly-accessible spots in the house – young people are much more likely to be sitting in their bedrooms consuming dangerous information, than what they would be if they were on the lounge or at the kitchen bench. Encourage kids to keep devices out of bedrooms and bathrooms.
Looking for ways to keep your kids and teens safe online?
My Family Digital Wellbeing Plan may help.
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