Continued discussion: intersection of kids, tech, and well-being

About three months ago, Facebook rolled out a controversial mobile messenger app for kids. The app, which targets children aged 6-13 years, allows users to send texts online after connecting with a parent’s Facebook account. Its key features include sending pictures, edited pictures (think colorful drawings transposed over selfies, etcetera), videos, and emojis, all without the usual clutter of advertisements.

While Facebook argues their new novelty encourages kids to connect rather than spend time on passive mobile applications like games, health experts say the young children Messenger Kids targets are just beginning to grasp written communication and are developmentally unprepared for the app’s interactions. Facebook further claims kids increased involvement with technology in this modern age is inevitable, so parents might as well embrace platforms like Messenger Kids, which requires their consent and doesn’t subject young users to harmful advertisements. On the other hand, health experts ask if Facebook is truly acting in the best interest of children, or just trying to exploit parents’ loyalty to their platform while hooking kids early on.

At the core of this debate is the question of how young is too young for kids to begin using and relying on digital communication. It is reminiscent of the Fitbit for kids case covered in February: are children too young to be wearing health-tracking devices? As new technology like these challenge traditional notions of childhood, it’s no wonder parents and pediatric specialists alike are divided.

Reflecting on our article from two weeks ago, too, regarding the adverse happiness effects of increased screen time on teens, Messenger Kids critics’ can add another layer to their argument. In light of Twenge et. al.’s research, it’s hard to see how Facebook’s new app could improve health.  The app gives young children yet another reason to use a screened device, setting them up for more phone dependency as they enter adolescence. Even if we say that increased social media time reduces  happiness, and not messaging apps or screens themselves, this point only goes so far when considering Messenger Kids as a gateway for younger users until they reach Facebook’s minimum required age for an account. Facebook guidelines state users should be 13, conveniently right at the recommended age cap for Messenger Kids users. If Messenger Kids preps users to join the Facebook community as soon as they are 13, then the introduction of the app would in fact increase social media time (thus reducing happiness, according to Twenge et. al.). As early as age 6, Messenger Kids ropes children into social media.

Another argument could be made for the better health outcomes associated with kids being more communicative with their parents and friends. Yet digital communication can only go so far. This point has no more validity than one that notes greater ease of texting could lead to fewer genuine interactions. More research on the topic is necessary to stake such claims.

Finally, Facebook’s defense that they are offering a connective, active app in contrast to other “passive” options does nothing to actually reduce time spent in front of the screen. Perhaps the answer to passive mobile applications is not an “active” app like Messenger Kids, but rather encouraging non-screen activities. Viewing all technology adoption as “inevitable” is a rather unproductive stance. If a new app for children could lead to decreased happiness down the line, potentially compromising mental health, it is insufficient to stand by idly, saying it’s the lesser of two evils. We encourage parents who do use this app for their kids to explore other options out there, encouraging positive, non-digital interaction. After all, with regard to the collective behavior we noted two weeks ago, the app is only as good as its popularity.

A Different Kind of Gap: Poverty, Income, and Health

You are walking to work Tuesday morning, and as you pass a bustling intersection, you see a Mercedes Benz parked in front of a three-story clothing department store. You pass the intersection and can’t help but notice, the next street down is a community health center, a major player in providing healthcare to the underserved, with a short line of families and children waiting to go in. You find the juxtaposition of the scene to be intriguing for a moment, but your mind soon wanders.

These moments are something most individuals have witnessed in urban, suburban, or rural America without a second thought, especially when income inequality has been growing between upper-income and lower-income sectors of society for years. Such large wealth gaps may not initially seem to have a strict effect on health other than apparent gaps in medical care--however, socioeconomic differences and poverty can affect the behavior of individuals and the decisions they make. More specifically, poverty can have very real effects on the cognitive functioning and development of young children.

Our body generates the “fight or flight” response when we live through what our mind identifies as threatening situations. Our heart rate increases, we start working up a sweat, and our breathing gets faster. When people live under poverty, this stress response is ongoing, affecting the allocation of mental resources for what is important in the moment and what isn’t a priority, ultimately affecting how people think, their choices, and the outcomes of those choices.

For children’s developing brains, the response can be even more harmful. For instance, children living in poverty were correlated with having a smaller hippocampus region, which plays an important role in memory formation. One study even noted how certain brain regions specific to language and executive functioning, such as problem-solving or controlling emotions, were more prominent for children of higher-income backgrounds than lower-income backgrounds. With 21% of American children living in poverty, such forthcoming scientific evidence matters in how we target such problems.

Despite the growing body of research detailing the stark differences in the brains of children with different income backgrounds, there is promise for the future. More healthcare professionals, economists, and researchers are studying how poverty’s harmful effects on the brain can be reversed or mediated. Some scientists are even tackling the issue head on, by looking at how boosts in income can potentially improve children’s brain development. If we want to address poverty and income inequality, policymakers should not only pay attention to the income gap, but also its impact on the health of our nation’s children.