Social media has become a constant reality in the world of today’s children. This means social media is an unavoidable challenge for parents to navigate—and it isn’t slowing down any time soon. In fact, a recent survey conducted by Common Sense Media indicates that social media use and screen time has increased significantly between 2019 and 2022.
While it’s natural to assume this is an issue for teens and their parents, social media is finding its way to our children much earlier than expected. A 2021 study found that one-third of children ages 7 to 9 already use social media apps on phones or tablets.
This can be particularly concerning when considering the constant news stories and resources sharing the negative effects of these platforms. A quick Google search brings up studies around cyberbullying, inappropriate content, and self esteem impacts. However, there are benefits to social media that often aren’t discussed, such as the connection to community, keeping up with family and friends, and easily learning new skills.
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If parents shift their focus away from avoiding social media entirely, and work instead to monitor and foster a safe social media experience for their children, they can minimize risk and increase access to benefits.
What Are the Most Popular Social Media Channels?
While children are likely to explore social media across the board, a Pew Research Center study found that kids today—teenagers in particular—favor YouTube and TikTok above all others. In fact, 20 percent of teenagers indicated they use YouTube “almost constantly.”
While other platforms are gaining popularity with teens—such as Pinterest and Discord—the most popular social media channels are:
5 Common Dangers of Social Media
As with so many aspects of childhood, the dangers—and benefits—of social media use largely depend on the child, how they are using it, and their family’s attitude toward it. There is no definitive answer to which platforms pose the most threat, however here are five common dangers that any platform can pose.
Cyberbullying is any type of bullying that takes place over digital devices or social channels. It can include posting, sharing, or sending harmful, negative, or false content about someone else. The goal of cyberbullying is often meant to humiliate or harm others. Unfortunately, its negative effects on a child’s mental health can be catastrophic. Despite the damage cyberbullying causes, its prevalence on social media has made this type of bullying easier and dishearteningly common among school communities.
2. Privacy Concerns
With our children online more than ever, privacy has become an increasingly dire concern for many parents and caregivers. While children have an entire digital world at their fingertips, they haven’t yet developed the caution and awareness that adults have. Because of this, they may inadvertently share personal or private information, giving other websites and people an unwelcome window into your home and lives. Fortunately, parents have resources to check the privacy rating of the websites their children are traveling to.
3. Inappropriate Content
Platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat, which are growing in popularity among children, have chat and direct messaging features that are increasingly difficult to monitor. Unfortunately, this makes it easy for children to be approached by online strangers and spammers. More alarming still, platforms like YouTube find ways to promote inappropriate or unwanted content to children—even circumventing “kid-friendly” settings. For this reason, it’s important to not just rely just on ideas like “YouTube Kids” or parental controls, but actively monitor your child’s usage.
Another increasingly common danger associated with social media is how easy it is to spread misinformation. This can be especially dangerous when the false information involves matters of physical or mental health. It’s important for parents and caregivers to speak with their children about how to identify misinformation and encourage them to challenge the information they see online if it doesn’t feel authentic.
5. Self Esteem Issues
One of the biggest concerns parents and caregivers have related to social media is how much it can impact self esteem. Social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat are image-centric channels that frequently portray unhealthy ideas of how people should look. Impressionable young minds can be especially susceptible to this type of messaging.
In this way, social media can create a “compare and despair” dynamic. This leads to many children comparing their bodies and lives to the unrealistic and intentionally perfect images and videos posted on these platforms. The feelings of inadequacy and dissatisfaction that result can take years to undo, and the pressure to look “perfect” can contribute to feelings of isolation and inadequacy.
In addition to feelings of anxiety, research has found that social media and teen depression are often closely linked. In fact, numerous lawsuits have been filed against Meta—the parent company of Facebook and Instagram—alleging the company’s awareness that their platforms worsen mental health issues.
How to Keep Kids Safe on Social Media
While the risks and negative aspects of social media can seem daunting, it’s important to remember that social media is here to stay. Every year new and different platforms are created. Fortunately, there are many things parents and caregivers can do to keep their children safe.
Your first line of defense is to familiarize yourself with the platforms your child is using. Investigate the privacy settings and features, and take a look at the types of posts the platform typically features.
Set Rules and Boundaries
It’s important to establish clear rules and guidelines for your child’s use of social media and streaming platforms. It may help to discuss the risks with them, so they understand the rules and boundaries you’re putting in place.
Monitoring your child’s social media usage is an important part of keeping your child safe. It’s crucial to discuss your need to monitor their activity ahead of time, and you’ll want to have open and honest conversations with them about their experiences, and what you’re observing along the way.
Encourage Offline Activities
While parents and caregivers should accept social media as a key part of today’s childhood routine, it’s important to ensure your child is engaged in additional offline and “unplugged” activities. Sports, hobbies, and even spending face-to-face time with friends and family can ensure your children don’t become too reliant on social media. It may also help to establish “technology free zones/times” like the dinner table and bedtime, where they take a break from their phones, screens, and social media.
Talk to your child about the importance of privacy online, and the dangers of sharing personal information. Speak with them about the value of their privacy and not only how quickly information they post can spread across the internet, but also how it is almost impossible to completely remove it. For your part, you should know and understand each platform’s privacy settings to ensure your child has all the built-in protections possible.
Cyberbullying can be a very real and impactful part of today’s social media experience. Unfortunately, it’s a topic that can be difficult or even embarrassing for children to talk about. For this reason, it’s important to begin with open and honest conversation about what cyberbullying is, and what to look for. While children often want to handle things themselves, it’s important to stay involved so you can work on addressing difficult challenges together.
Keep Open Communication
Open communication is a key component in keeping children safe on social media. Have open and ongoing conversations about what your child is encountering on social media. Try to be clear that they should come to you with any questions or concerns without judgment. This will help ensure they will approach you before a situation gets critical, and will allow you to step in and help them navigate any problems that may arise.
Education Is Key To Safe Social Media Engagement
While the omnipresence of social media doesn’t always have a positive effect, these topics are now being taught and addressed in school. Schools like Friends’ Central School engage students in social media and digital citizenship in many different ways. Teachers and support staff lead advisory programming, and teach children how they can harness the power of social media and the internet to contribute to their communities in positive ways.
Faculty and staff work closely with members of the technology department to ensure students understand the intricacies of social media and streaming platforms. But the most impactful and successful tool in helping children navigate the world of social media is the close connection we form between the school and its families. Keeping these lines of communication open allows schools to reinforce what parents are practicing at home, and can ensure parents have the tools necessary to stay involved.
At the end of the day, parents and caregivers should remember that when it comes to social media, they aren’t alone. The resources to help guide parents through this new social world are plentiful. And with educators, schools and counselors acting as an extended support system, it’s a world that can be navigated successfully and more importantly, safely.