Over the past few years, social media has become a ubiquitous part of the lives of children and teens. Using various digital platforms is second nature for these so-called digital natives, be it for staying connected with friends, sharing opinions and interests, or keeping up-to-date with favorite celebrities.
There is no doubt that social networks have a positive side to them, however, their boom has also raised some serious concerns, especially in connection to children and teens. So, what is the dark side of social media and how can you protect your children against it?
1. Privacy invasion
Just like any activity on the internet, posting on social media leaves a permanent mark. Children, especially those just starting out with social media, might not realize this – excited about the new experience, they might go on a posting spree without realizing that they once might regret what they published for the whole world to see. Such oversharing may include anything from unfiltered personal thoughts, through awkward photos, to private information that could be misused when in the wrong hands.
How can you help?
· Make sure you child only uses social media appropriate for their age – most social network services have a minimum age requirement that should serve as a guideline.
· Discuss privacy settings with your child – social media profiles should be set to private to stay in control over who sees your child’s information and posts.
· Talk with your child about the kind of content that could backfire when posted on social media – private and sensitive information or images, including photos of personal documents, tickets with personal information, and scannable codes.
2. Scams, hoaxes and fake news
Information can travel fast when posted on social media – and unfortunately, it is not just funny cat videos that go viral. Although these subjects have been in the news a lot recently, they aren’t new problems. From scam ads claiming to offer , through false news stories aiming to sway people’s opinions on various matters, to outright hoaxes and lies, social media offers fertile ground for spreading deceptive content. And even if children know how to recognize a blatant scam email promising them a staggering sum of money in exchange for personal information, they might not be able to recognize the many different campaigns that lurk on social networks.
How can you help?
· Teach your child to recognize misleading content online by going over its most common signs:
o For scams, a good rule of thumb is that any offer that sounds too good to be true most likely really is.
o For misinformation, sensationalist stories, lack of author and credible sources, poor stylistics and grammar, and absence of reports in renowned media are the main telltale signs.
· Discuss an example of a misleading or fake post with your child, pointing out the various signs that gave it away as such.
3. Haters, bullies and stalkers
Everyone gets a voice on social networks, and unfortunately, that includes those with nefarious intentions. Your child might not be prepared for having to deal with harassment or hateful comments after joining a public discussion, or worse, becoming the target of cyber bullies or stalkers. For a child, encountering online hate can be a puzzling and extremely stressful experience. For parents, such issues might be even harder to spot than bullying in its traditional forms.
How can you help?
· In general, privacy awareness, including strict privacy settings, can shield away most of the unsolicited contact. Your child should know not to accept requests from strangers, and their profile should only be visible to their friends.
· If you suspect your child is going through a negative experience connected to their social media use, find the time to talk to them about it. Make them feel safe to confide in you without feeling threatened or judged.
· Once a problem has been identified, help your child solve it. Most social networks give users the ability to block and report users that made them feel unsafe in any way. In severe cases, consider involving the police.
· If needed, you can contact a local or national safer internet center to have someone accompany you and your child through the various processes to keep them safe. Every case is different and needs a specific procedure. The most important thing is the safety of the child—physically and psychologically. A Safer internet center can also help in approaching the police if needed.
4. Mental health concerns
Spending hours and hours scrolling through social media feeds can impact children’s mood and self-esteem. The platforms have created a highly competitive environment, where the number of likes received on a post works as a direct indicator of one’s relevance. Besides competition among peers, these digital platforms also expose children to the profiles of celebrities and various social media influencers. These social media “stars” often polish their public profiles to perfection, presenting a distorted image to their millions of (often young and impressionable) followers, leaving them feeling inadequate. Further to confidence issues, excessive time spent on social media is suspected to be linked to , , and . That word “suspected” is very important here. Social media might appear to be the source of problems, but it could also be just one factor or totally irrelevant. If a child seems too attached to their phone, perhaps it’s a distraction from something else and not the root of the problem.
While proving prompt support to children is important, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Parents need to spend time with their children and talk about all facets of their lives,
How can you help?
· Encourage your child to spend time with their friends in person rather than spend hours chatting on social media.
· Consider creating a habit of screen-free family time where everyone puts their phone away for an hour or two – the parents, too!
· Watch for changes in behavior and mood that seem to be linked to your child’s use of social media. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, talk to them and offer to help them resolve whatever is troubling them.
· If your child is struggling but does not seem to respond to your efforts to help, consider consulting a mental health professional.
5. Living in the “here and now” vs. building the selfie collection
Children and teenagers need approval through the eyes of others, mostly their peers. That is why they can get very focused on spreading the message about what they do and presenting that message in just the right way. They’ve always sought to boost to their image but smartphones have changed the situation dramatically. Kids want to be seen as cool and attractive and spend a great deal of time crafting a public image. In this process children (and adults) sometimes tend to forget that life happens “here and now” even without posting any information about it.
How can we help?
- Don’t judge too much: try to understand the importance of popularity and image for teenagers.
- Consider using the mindfulness approach and help children to distinguish between living “here and now” and "living for upvotes, comments and likes”. Aim to keep a balance. Extreme goals are not required: the best goals are to help build awareness and inspire more “here and now” activities.
- Practice a harm-reduction approach with your child and educate them about risks.
Help children to be themselves—everyone has imperfections and they should understand that. Initiate conversations with them but also encourage kids to talk about their experiences. Don’t forget to act as a role model while all of this is going on.