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Is access to social networks harming our children?

Every Chinese New Year, we follow the same routine: Visiting family, eating, catching up with friends, shopping, and more eating. However, there is something Singaporeans — young and old — now do that was rare only a few years ago: Sending wishes and arranging these visits using WhatsApp.

Graphic: Adolfo Arranz

Graphic: Adolfo Arranz

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Every Chinese New Year, we follow the same routine: Visiting family, eating, catching up with friends, shopping, and more eating. However, there is something Singaporeans — young and old — now do that was rare only a few years ago: Sending wishes and arranging these visits using WhatsApp.

Singapore happens to be No 1 globally in smartphone ownership, with nine out of 10 Singaporeans owning a smartphone, and with it, unlimited access to social networks.

We also happen to be bottom of the charts (five out of five) for monitoring Internet use of young Singaporeans, according to a large-scale study carried out by the Insight team. Parents of children between the ages of three to eight were surveyed in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

Why does this matter? Singapore is a developed, consumer-driven society; many of us want prestigious brands, exotic holidays, the latest gadgets, and dining at the best restaurants. It follows that our social media feeds are full of images of this perfect consumer lifestyle. For young children who do not know any better, this may be what life looks like.

Younger generations are often accused of having high expectations in life. Could it be our fault for allowing them unchecked access to social networks?

To completely deny children access to this kind of technology could make them feel like outcasts or reduce the benefits of being a digital native. Is there a middle ground where children can enjoy the freedom to use social networks without coming to emotional harm?




Previous studies on the effect of social networks on children have produced mixed findings. Research has shown that social networks provide benefits, such as giving children an outlet for their feelings, as well as negative consequences, such as depression and dissatisfaction with life. Where existing studies fall short is proving what factors are specifically responsible for the negative outcomes, or showing how they can be mitigated without limiting access.

Previous studies have also measured social network usage in hours spent rather than defining and measuring specific consumer-based activities, such as actively discussing shopping or brands on social networks.

To provide a deeper analysis of how these factors affect Singaporean children, I, together with Professors May Lwin and Wonsun Shin from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, conducted a study of more than 900 Singaporean students aged between 18 and 22 years old, recruited from five universities and polytechnics in Singapore.

The subjects were surveyed over six months in 2014, including detailed questioning on how consumer-focused their social network usage was, their materialistic tendencies, their family relationships, and their psychological well-being.

The study revealed that students who regularly used social networks to discuss consumer-led topics such as shopping, brands, holidays and food were more inclined to see their own lives as inferior to their social media connections who seem to be living the high life. This allowed us to conclude that social comparison is a crucial factor in the relationship between social network usage and the well being of young people.

Students said that this feeling of inferiority gave them low self-esteem, anxiety and, in some cases, led to uncontrollable spending sprees — seemingly in an effort to close the gap between their own lives and what they see in their news feeds. This gave us a direct link between consumer-based social network activity, a tendency for comparison with others, a feeling of inadequacy, and negative outcomes.

These behaviours were more common for students who feel that materialistic possessions and financial success were very important, but there was another group in the study that seemed to be immune from the negative effects.

Students who told us that they have a close, healthy relationship with their parents and assessed using self-rated measures of attachment, support and warmth, did not suffer the same feelings of inferiority, nor did they succumb to the behaviour that this can trigger.

While previous research had shown that limiting access to social networks could be effective in controlling the negative effects, until now there has been no proof that parenting could protect children. It seems that a good family relationship can help prevent children from becoming materialistic and gives them a more robust sense of self-worth.

To these students, it does not matter if they are exposed to consumerism or not — they still believe in themselves.

This suggests that a happy and respectful parent-child relationship is the key to arming young adults with the tools to help them navigate through life. It is not about denying them access to perceived evils, but ensuring that they have the self-confidence and emotional intelligence to deal with unfairness.

In moderation, social networks can play a valuable role in the lives of our children. Building warm and caring family relationships and openly discussing issues can offset the negative aspects and ensure that they stay anchored in reality.

Parents can be better role models by curbing their own social media use and having open discussions with their children — which are more effective in the long run than restrictive control.

Our future is an always-on world where anything and everything will be available at the tap of a finger. It is essential that we help prepare our children for this world instead of being heavy-handed or, even worse, ignoring the issue altogether.


About the author:

Dixon Ho is a Fellow of the Institute of Asian Consumer Insight and an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Nanyang Business School, NTU Singapore. His research interests include business-to-business marketing, distribution channels, retailer strategies and consumer psychology.

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