Given the popularity of social media and the prevalence of smartphones in teenagers’ lives, how can adults protect them from every worst-case scenario lurking in direct messages and algorithmic feeds?
Government help could be a long way off. While more than five proposed pieces of legislation were mentioned during the hearing, it’s unlikely any will be passed soon, even with bipartisan interest in the topic. Critics say such legislation could be used to target LGBTQ+ teens or further block minors from getting essential information about history, politics and sex — similar to the book bans sweeping the country.
That leaves the worrying to parents and teenagers themselves. Instead of trying to cut off access until they’re old enough to vote, here’s how to talk to your kids about the harms lurking on social media.
Social media companies didn’t invent the dangers that kids face. They encounter drugs in their families and peer groups; they are more likely to be sex-trafficked by someone they know personally than a stranger online; and online bullying tends to mimic what they’re going through in real life.
However, the apps can amplify these problems.
“If social media went away, these things would still exist and have always existed,” says Michelle Icard, author of “8 Setbacks That Can Make a Child a Success.” “But social media does create some unique aspects to these issues.”
Talk to kids about the broader issues, not just the pieces that are specific to social media.
Icard suggests thinking about social media like you would any other common tool that can be both helpful or harmful. You want your children to be careful using a stove, but you also want them to learn how to cook for themselves.
Know what you should worry about
The idea isn’t to scare parents, but to educate everyone involved so they can spot danger.
Drugs in DMs: Dealers are connecting with teens and even tweens on social media. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, dealers are buying ads on social media sites, communicating with kids over direct messages or in comments, and accepting payments over popular payment apps. The biggest danger is getting a drug laced with fentanyl, which can be deadly no mater where it’s purchased.
Financial sextortion: Go over all the scam basics with teens, but also make sure they know about scams that target their age group specifically. Criminals are posing as age-appropriate romantic targets online, soliciting compromising photos from teenagers, and then using them for blackmail. They ask for money in exchange for not releasing the photo or sending it to their family.
Viral challenges: The news cycles around viral challenges are often bigger than the videos themselves, with many turning out to be fake. Still, a few of the trends, which encourage viewers to re-create something silly or dangerous, have ended up with teens injured and dead. A 12-year-old died of asphyxiation after participating in an online “Blackout Challenge,” according to his family.
Mental health issues: Perhaps the most covered affect of social media is its impact on the mental health of teens. That can include fitness or self-help content that encourages unhealthy behaviors like disordered eating, even suicide. Social media and phones in general can also worsen mental health by lessening the amount of sleep teens get or contributing to loneliness.
Sleep is a huge concern among experts when it comes to teenagers and their phones. High-schoolers are supposed to get nine hours a night, but devices can keep them up late, wake them early — and even interrupt them repeatedly throughout the night. Similar to adults.
“We have very clear data showing a strong link between sleep and mental health, and between disrupted sleep and suicide,” says Lisa Damour, a psychologist and author of “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers.”
She recommends keeping devices out of the bedroom and charging them somewhere out of reach.
The other limit parents can set for their children is delaying the introduction of social media for as long as possible. In the United States, most social media sites allow anyone 13 or older to sign up for and manage their own account. Damour says to push it off until at least 14, when kids start being more skeptical of what they see and hear.
“The tension we want to navigate here is giving kids as much access to tech as they need to maintain real-life relationships and no more than that,” says Damour.
Ask about their algorithms
Is your teen spending down time watching videos of capybaras or weather disasters? Or are they deep into conspiracy theories and hate-filled content, being fed post after post promoting misogyny, racism and xenophobia?
The algorithms that are at the heart of most successful social media apps can be unpredictable and difficult to control. To find out what your children are seeing online, ask them directly what kinds of content they’re being fed. Then explain to them how the algorithms work.
“Teenagers are really smart and very observant. Your most successful conversations with them will start from that assumption,” said Damour. “Say the algorithms that drive social media do not care about you, they care about money. The way they make money is to put in front of you content that is hard to pull away from.”
Have conversations, but don’t be weird about it
Talk honestly and often with your tweens and teens, but make sure you’re doing in an effective way. Icard, who also wrote “Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen,” suggests letting your children pick the timing instead of ambushing them. Keep it short, echo back what they’re telling you so they know they’re being heard, keep your questions broad instead of personal and end with a request for feedback.
She also says to avoid reaching for the worst-case scenario.
“Some parents have a very dramatic, skewed sense of danger,” says Icard. “They say ‘Don’t go on social media, you’ll be sex-trafficked.’ The reality that we know is that most kids do not get sex-trafficked through stranger channels, it happens through someone they know who has built trust with them.”
Instead, parents should talk factually about the apps and sites, pointing out that people and things aren’t always what they appear to be online. Equip them with the tools to be skeptical, said Icard. If you focus only on the most terrible possible outcome — like being arrested for sending a nude image vs. it being shown to other teens — kids are less likely to take you seriously.