Royal Grammar School


The Goldilocks Hypothesis and Our Lives Online - How do we get it just right?

The Goldilocks Hypothesis and Our Lives Online - How do we get it just right?

Director of Progress, Learning and Support, Alice Lee, gives a short book review of Nicola Morgan's The Teenage Guide to Life Online, exploring some of the arguments for and against young people's time spent online:

In most of my conversations with parents, the topic of online behaviour comes up. One parent told me, with discernible glee, that when she needs to have a conversation with her teenage children, she just turns off the internet. So passing The Teenage Guide to Life Online in the library, I had high hopes of exploring Nicola Morgan’s response to the research in this area.   

She aims for a balance of arguments, highlighting the benefits as well as the costs of our online lives, and before teenagers feel vilified for using their phone, nowhere in the book does this talk about online problems being for just teenagers. It is clear that this relates to adults too. Nicola has researched life online in some depth, despite the limited amount of research on the topic, and the changing nature of the subject. This book encourages us to reflect on our online lives and she reports the irritation or frustration of our children when we tell them to use their phones less while the adults are using their phones more.

A survey of 1500 parents and children by an American restaurant chain discovered some unsurprising things:

- 72% of children wished their parents spent less time on devices at meals.

- 56% of people aged between 6 and 16 said they felt ignored.

- 1 in 10 children said they’d hidden a parent’s device to get their attention.

- 15% said they thought their parents preferred their phones to talking to them.

Parents were also concerned about their own use, with over 75% feeling guilty and 67% saying their phone had come between them and their family.

Sue Baillie’s blog on Life in Likes explores the Children’s Commissioner report into children’s social media world and how our own online behaviour is such a strong model for our children.  

Morgan highlights three reasons why the internet and social media are so attractive (linked to the neurology of pleasure and temptation):

1. Social – we are naturally drawn to making connections and being social helps us survive in evolutionary terms.

2. Curiosity – we are drawn to discovering things and derive pleasure from investigating.  Curiosity has risks but risk-taking is important for success.

3. Distractions – noticing changes in the surroundings meant our ancestors were more likely to be successful.

Also, she mentions that we are programmed to be anxious, awareness of the risks is a protective factor in evolutionary terms. So we are programmed to be social, curious, distracted, anxious, and the internet give us this in bucket loads. These online behaviours are rewarding (in the mesolimbic pathway) and working in an instinctive and emotional way.  

Many parents ban screen time during the week and many parents argue with their children about perceived differences in opinion. Scientists have suggested that, unsurprisingly, too much screen time leads to problems, as can too little. They have called it ‘The Goldilocks Hypothesis’, about how we can try to get it ‘just right’.

Morgan does not shy away from the positives of an online life. Being excluded, or having no friends, is one of the most difficulty things that our students will deal with and is a strong factor in depression. The internet has given us so many ways to build our social network, and make or keep friends. If teenagers are in a group, they feel less in the spotlight and it is easy to find people in the same situation. We can have several conversations at once yet don’t have to think of a polite way or leaving the conversation. We can spent time thinking about what we want to say and don’t have to deal with silences.  

However, the negatives stack up too. The online disinhibition effect means people feel more free to exhibit anti-social behaviours, rudeness or trolling. People feel anonymous or invisible and as the responses are not in real time, that disconnect can result in some pretty awful online communications. Research shows that screen time takes away from people’s health, well-being and hobbies, as some become too dependent on their screen lives. There’s over-sharing (as when we share, we connect and that releases dopamine, the pleasure hormone) and a lack of privacy (particularly of ‘sharenting’). The seemingly perfect lives and the new phenomenon the ‘selfie smile’ (documented in the history of the smile, yes really) is all about façade rather than experience. We can have too many friends to connect with (the maximum for meaningful friends is said to be about 150) and it is easy to feel pressured to send images younger people may not want to send.  

Morgan talks about the pros and cons of the knowledge and information explosion as well as our ‘busy brains’. The research tells us that no-one can actually multi-task (instead it is continuous partial attention or switching attention quickly) and digital natives are just good at being distracted and not focusing on one thing at a time. Morgan wonders whether teenagers lose the ability to read deeply and slowly, a skill that is vital for learning, yet now is harder for our young people as a result of the reading habits. She mentions the internet and creativity, part of the internet with so many positives, but have our young people lost the art of being bored?  Was Robert Pirsig right when he said, “Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity”?

The final chapter on the internet and mood is particularly important. Media headlines are usually negative about online behaviours but friendship can be easily accessed and support can be close at hand. It is easy to find things that make us laugh or distract us and engage our minds. Whether this turns in to an obsession or addiction is where the line is drawn. The Like Movie (a film about young people’s responses to the online world) talks about addiction to phones and how the parts of the brain related to love and addictions are both activated when young people look at their phones. However the addiction is different from substances, it doesn’t damage our ability to manage our impulses nor does it make us need it more. A decision is a powerful way forward. Morgan gives ways to help break the reliance or habit we make on our phones and offers tips for good screen habits.  

So with the holidays beginning, maybe I’ll implement her screen tips of making a clear goal of time, allowing myself a small reward once I’ve done some work, and aim to reduce my usage at home, ironically perhaps through an app! And although my children are too old to read Goldilocks and the Three Bears, we’ll try to get it ‘just right’.  

Alice Lee
Director of Progress, Learning and Support