“The information that active use of social media leads to depression hasn’t been confirmed so far”

Sociologist Yelizaveta Sivak about myths about modern-day teenagers

“The information that active use of social media leads to depression hasn’t been confirmed so far” Photo: ioe.hse.ru

HSE NRU published research on the generation of modern-day teenagers (the so-called Generation Z), which can be considered sensational. Scientists examined what popular ideas of the youth were correct and what ideas didn’t comply with reality. In an interview with Realnoe Vremya, one of the authors of this work, sociologist, Director of the Centre for Modern Childhood Studies at HSE NRU Yelizaveta Sivak explained if there was really a gap between generations.

“Look at how the instructions on phones looked in the past and how they look now. One doesn’t even have to read them”

Yelizaveta, what was the key conclusion of your research?

There is a theory of generations, which suggests that the early youth and the environment a person grows up affects everything the person does further. It is said that if we look at a 20-30-year-old person who is growing up now and get information about people who were 20-30 years 10 years ago, these groups will be very different. And these differences are conditioned by the context people grew up in.

Such ideas are very popular. There are ideas about different generations. It is said that the Generation Z is more psychologically vulnerable, less mature, more dependent on the Internet, gadgets, social media, more homesick, friends matter to them less, they aspire for success more. We looked at the data that proves these ideas and saw that some ideas were just wrong, they didn’t have foundation.

Photo: Oleg Tikhonov
It is said that Generation Z is more psychologically vulnerable, less mature, more dependent on the Internet, gadgets, social media, more homesick, friends matter to them less, they aspire for success more

For example?

For example, there is a myth that a member of Generation Z can do something with the greatest focus for a very short period. There has been no research on it. Some assumptions are characteristic of all teenagers in general, for instance, an aspiration for independence or success. Some things are specific for everyone, not one generation. For instance, nowadays all people feel uncomfortable without a phone. If they are asked to sit without gadgets in an empty room, it is quite hard for them to withstand.

It is interesting to think about the theory of generations, but the possibilities of checking it are quite limited. In case of some specific things, we can see the influence of the environment a person grew up in. But in case of ideas of generations, something went out of control. People courageously opine what characteristics are native to different generations on the basis of age only… But it is very strange. False ideas can create foundation for discrimination.

Does it turn out that the differences between generations are insignificant?

There might be some differences, but it isn’t an abyss, which is often pictured. One should look at different factors here. People of even different ages but from similar families can be alike. And people of the same age living in different contexts will differ a lot.

But there are probably differences between people who grew up without the Internet and with the Internet.

Technologies are easy to use. If we look at how the instructions on phones looked in the past and how they look now… One doesn’t even have to read them to use some functions. The gap due to the use of technologies is also exaggerated. It can be between the 90- and 15-year-olds. It is maybe unusual for somebody to exchange audio messages, he thinks: “Why not call?” It is wrong to draw the line between generations on this basis.

Photo: Maksim Platonov
On the one hand, adults are keen on games, children’s entertainments. At the same time children’s activity stops being different from that of the adults. They use the same devices, they exist in the same information space, their time is more structured

“Many children prefer to surf the Net, not hang out and drink alcohol. Teenagers’ interest in sex is also reducing

How long is childhood now? There is a feeling that modern-day children grow up earlier than the previous generations, start to have romantic relationships, consume alcohol and smoke cigarettes earlier.

Some things happen later, for instance, marriage and childbirth. Studies also become longer, almost lifelong, this is why many talk about the disappearance of childhood per se because the line between the child and adult is blurring. On the one hand, adults are keen on games, children’s entertainments. At the same time children’s activity stops being different from that of the adults. They use the same devices, they exist in the same information space, their time is more structured (less time for games). And, by the way, there is a tendency for a reduction in children's consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, drugs.

Why is it happening?

There is a lot of online activities. Many children prefer to surf the Net, not hang out and drink alcohol. Teenagers’ interest in sex is also reducing.

When did the idea that children are different from adults appear in general?

Approximately in the 17th century. There is a famous book Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life by Philippe Ariès. It says that before the 17th century, children were considered little adults, that’s to say, people who were simply different from adults in size. They were dressed like adults, and children could do what adults did. There was no idea that a child needed to be protected from something, that it was vulnerable, sensitive and helpless.

Eventually, childhood began to become a stage. The first image of the child different from the adult is an image of an inadequate adult who needed to become adequate with the help of walkers and other appliances. The cultural and social context began to change gradually, and in the 18th century children started to be considered not as inadequate but, on the contrary, more perfect than adults because they lived in their own innocent world, they didn’t know adults’ problems yet, they didn’t have defects. There was an idea that children shouldn’t grow up fast, they should be protected and guarded.

A portrait of twins, Netherlands, 17th century. Photo: liveinternet.ru
There is a famous book Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life by Philippe Ariès. It says that before the 17th century children were considered little adults, that’s to say, people who were simply different from adults in size. They were dressed like adults, and children could do what adults did

Kindergartens appeared only in the 19th century on the wave of ideas of the child as somebody vulnerable, unprotected and fragile creature and thus the name of kindergarten because children are like flowers. We have such ideas now as well. We consider children dependent, fragile, needing a special environment for development, separation from the adults’ world.

“There is a hypothesis that the feeling of connection with people who they don’t know, for instance, their favourite blogger matters more to teenagers

What role do modern parents play in children’s education? We can often hear complaints that today they, as well as school, have distanced themselves from education, and the Internet, cartoons, bloggers, games do it.

Now, on the contrary, we can talk about such a phenomenon as “intensive parenthood”. It is an idea that parents are so important for children. The image of a good parent isn’t just a person who provides a child with some education, clothes, food and care, it is a person who optimises the space around the child by helping him to choose the best books, the best music. It is the person who invents a lot of different activities from early childhood, takes the child to educational classes and so on.

There is little clarity about the influence of the online environment. There is a hypothesis that the feeling of connection with people who they don’t know, for instance, their favourite blogger matters more to teenagers. It is people they have never talked and met in reality. As for games, it was proved a long time ago that aggressive games don’t cause aggression among children. The harm of computer games is very exaggerated.

Photo: Oleg Tikhonov
It’s okay if parents make a decision to limit the child’s time spent on social media or not buy a phone after weighing up the pros and cons. If a person has a lot of live communication, he doesn’t need the gadget in general

Talking about the influence of social media on children’s psychological well-being, there is a number of big research abroad, which shows that this influence doesn’t exist. In other words, the information that active use of social media leads to depression hasn’t been confirmed so far.

So can’t we say if the parents who don’t buy gadgets to their children do right at the moment?

Parents know their child better. I am not a defender of huge interference in a family’s affairs. It goes without saying that there are cases when it is necessary. It’s okay if parents make a decision to limit the child’s time spent on social media or not buy a phone after weighing up the pros and cons. If a person has a lot of live communication, he doesn’t need the gadget in general.

To calm down parents whose child spends much time in front of the computer, I can say that the Internet isn’t the absolute evil, one can do a lot of useful things there. A child can be taught to use the Internet safely.

By Natalia Antropova