Social media isn’t a problem for every kid - only some of them. Five conversation starters from the American Academy of Pediatrics will help you figure out if yours is one.
Suddenly, making decisions about social media has become a lot more serious. Evidence that big tech has been well aware of the well-being risks to young users - yet has ruthlessly targeted them anyway - has been all over the media in recent weeks, including this blog.
Interviews conducted recently by the 5Rights Foundation with tech design professionals revealed “the commercial objectives that put innovators under pressure to produce features that maximise time spent, maximise reach and maximise activity. These features shape children’s behaviour.
“They make it hard for children to put down their devices (“I kept turning it off and then going back and still using it” – Lara, 13). They push network growth to the extent that children find themselves introduced to inappropriate adults, often with provocative or sexual content (“Old men and that sort of thing” – James, 14). And they encourage children to post, share and enhance to such a degree that many children feel that their ‘real selves’ are inadequate (“All my photos have filters…they make you look prettier” – Carrie, 17).”
The takeaway is indisputable: social platforms have done a poor job of protecting our children - so much so that governments around the world, including our own, are starting to intervene.
Not every kid is at risk
But let’s be real. Not every child on Instagram or Snapchat is going to be harmed, especially when parents are vigilant about age-appropriate boundary-setting. And when our kids tell us their social life depends on online chats and shares … well, by the high school years at least, they’ve got a point.
The fact is, many teens have genuinely positive experiences on social media. They find connection and support from peers, distraction from life’s hardships, information about the wider world, and a place to express their feelings.
Others will have just the opposite experience. They will find that time on social media erodes their self-esteem, increasing feelings of isolation and inadequacy and making them vulnerable to risky connections.
Until recently, Instagram allowed strangers to direct-message teens with explicit content. Facebook was fine with allowing kids to be targeted by harmful special interests - extreme dieting, for example.
In fact, on every social platform, algorithms inevitably promote extreme content over reasonable or neutral material. That’s exactly why stereotypes and misinformation abound and multiply.
Which kids are truly at risk?
Would your child be resistant to such messages, or vulnerable to them? That’s a question every parent needs to answer for themselves. And the best way of doing it, say experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics, is to sit down with your child and talk it through - starting with these questions:
Keep in mind, though, that conversations about your child’s online life should never be a matter of “one and done.” They need to be ongoing throughout the teen years - and follow-up is essential.
And don’t forget that kids with body image issues and eating disorders should steer clear of image-based platforms - Instagram in particular. At the very least, these teens’ social media activity needs to be monitored and discussed with particular care.
Finally, whether your child seems to be in an at-risk category or not, placing boundaries around social media use will help maintain balance, encourage sleep hygiene, and minimise any threats to their digital health and wellbeing.
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