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Facebook Doesn’t Care About Our Kids: What Parents Can Do

Does Instagram Hurt Kids?

Parents ask me all the time: Does Instagram hurt kids? Is social media bad for kids? My answer…It depends. Based on my own research as well as other published research, we know that connecting online with friends via texting, games or social apps can be positive for many kids.

On the other hand, most of us who study this stuff believe social media can turn up the dial on self-doubt, feelings of exclusion, or worries about physical appearance. Social media is not necessarily the sole cause of these feelings for kids. Still, new revelations add to parents’ concerns about how Instagram effects young people’s mental health.

Recently, a whistleblower from inside Facebook has exposed some very concerning internal research about Instagram (which they own), showing that as far back as 2019 if not earlier, they recognized that Instagram was particularly toxic and harmful for some teenage girls. 

Many of the parents and educators in my network feel like these internal documents, first shared in the Wall Street Journal, confirms what they already long suspected about kids’ experiences with Instagram. The current Senate hearing is asking Facebook to respond to these revelations by clarifying what they knew and what they did about it. Anyone who cares about kids and teens and their welfare should pay attention to what comes out of this hearing.  Will Facebook make sweeping changes to be sure their platform doesn’t harm children?  Don’t hold your breath for a huge transformation.

Despite all of this, I don’t recommend that parents shut kids off from all social media until they are 18. Teaching kids the ropes of social media is going to be more effective than preaching abstinence-only.  As tempting as it is to just try to keep kids off of social media, for many kids the pleasures and possibilities will outweigh the risks and harms.
 

But we need to mentor, support and listen. 

Teens themselves are telling researchers that their experiences on Instagram lead to eating disorders, suicidal ideation and other threats to their health and well-being. Kids who already have a risk factor are especially vulnerable. Right now many children and adolescents are at heightened mental health risk due to the ongoing pandemic, so we can consider almost all kids to have at least one risk factor right now.

Kids are exposed to negative messages like unrealistic and unhealthy body “ideals” before they even get to social media. If social media exacerbates that exposure, and if a teen, tween or child is already vulnerable after a setback (like say being home for a year, or a negative series of social interactions, or just being a teenager in these times) that could mean that social media, if used in certain ways, can put them at risk. 

Social media algorithms can harm a child’s mental health by sending harmful and misleading content to users based on even one or two clicks in that direction. For example, when researchers created accounts as 15 year old girls and liked “a single post from a sportswear brand about dieting” and followed one other account dieting related account and these actions were enough to crowd her “explore” feed with with “content relating to weight loss journeys and tips, exercise and body sculpting.” The researchers noted the images in her explore feed started to feature “noticeably slim, and in some cases seemingly edited/distorted body shapes.”

We can ask ourselves, why do some kids keep going back to spaces and sites that hurt them, even if they realize, at some level, that it hurts? Of course many adults do the same thing. Social sites have features (such as the ‘like button) that make them hard to quit. And we are social animals–we go where our friends are.

All of us, adults and teens, need to cultivate self-knowledge and self-regulation to identify when our use of apps may be hurting more than they are helping. But the apps also need to rethink algorithms that send toxic content to users–especially children. 

And yes, kids under thirteen aren’t supposed to use apps like Instagram, and waiting til you don’t have to lie about your age to use an app is certainly the best practice. As anyone who has been thirteen knows,  thirteen is by no means the age of complete reason and waiting til that age alone is not enough to protect kids from harmful experiences.

Take your own emotional temperature

As parents, we can work hard to get our kids to recognize that something might be making them feel worse, not better. Talking about our own experiences with social comparison can help. Teachers, scouting leaders, athletic coaches and other adults that have influence with young people need to take every opportunity to check in about these issues with adolescents and share strategies to help teens and tweens learn the best strategies. I like to remind kids to be sure they are running their devices and not letting their devices run them. 

That means unfollowing accounts that spew harmful images and ideas, and regularly reality-checking what they see online with other sources including as much in-person social interaction as life in a pandemic allows. We should strive to give teens agency in how they use these apps, while doing our job to prepare them for the risks inherent in them. 

Every App is Special

Getting to know apps one at a time and focusing on the culture and features of that app and how it makes you feel is important.  Facebook’s own research found the culture of Instagram was especially risky for teen girl’s body-image while Tik Tok and SnapChat have some factors that mitigate (somewhat) that particular risk. On the other hand, Tik Tok can serve up images promoting alcohol and drugs to minors, and has other content we might want our kids to avoid. And Snapchat streaks--ongoing volleys of communication that you lose if you skip a day— can stress kids out and make it hard to unplug. Every app has its own special perks and it’s own pitfalls. 

We can encourage our children to skip the “explore” feature on Instagram and focus on what their actual friends are posting. We can remind them to unfollow peers who only post things that make them feel bad and not to post things that will hurt other people. For adults and kids, it is good to remember that if spending time on a certain app makes you feel bad, try to allocate your time accordingly, or experiment with taking a break from the app by taking it off your most frequently used device.

The teens I talk with say that interest-based social groups in spaces like Discord are less stressful than social media in general because it is about connection and affiliation and not about performing a perfect version of yourself. Yet even these spaces can have drama and conflict. There is no perfect place to hang out on the Internet! 

7 Ways Parents Can Help

We can MENTOR and not simply MONITOR. We can discuss our own experiences with social comparison. Remind kids that we’re only seeing a sliver of other people’s lives. That all of us are greater and more complex than the sum of our posts

Remind kids they can CURATE content and feeds for protection of their mental health.  We can encourage our children to be smart about the algorithm, follow positive posters and add contacts mindfully (and don’t just focus on the numbers!)

Remember and model good HABITS like choosing certain times of day to use social apps carefully and only scroll when they are feeling emotionally grounded. Remember to unplug and get enough sleep. Keeping devices out of bedrooms at night can help.

Remind kids to REALITY CHECK what they see. Remember people are using this as a space to perform. Check sources on news stories and updates. Talk about what you are seeing with others.

Encourage kids to PRIORITIZE face to face contact, hobbies they love, and work that meets their life goals over social media time.

SHARE thoughtfully and encourage kids to do the same. Be intentional about being part of the solution. 

Teach good BOUNDARIES You can model great boundaries by remembering to check with your kids before sharing images of them or news about them. Save super personal news for trusted friends.

Given that Facebook and other social media companies have shown us that profits and growth are more important to them than the safety and well being of users, we need to focus on harm-reduction and helping kids learn to navigate these spaces in ways that benefit them or, at minimum, does the least amount of harm while preserving access to the social opportunities for connection that bring us to these apps in the first place.

Not sure where to start? Join the 7-Day Family Tech Reset (below)

Text Messages, Texting, Texts, IM, Conflict, Digital Devices, Smartphones

Texting Trouble: When Minor Issues Become Major Problems

Text Messages, Texting, Texts, IM, Conflict, Digital Devices, SmartphonesConflict is difficult, even for adults. But for today’s kids, it’s particularly complex. The interpersonal conflicts that you remember as a child are all still there, but the landscape has changed somewhat. Digital devices in the hands of our kids offer more connectivity (good!), but it comes with many more opportunities for miscommunication.

Tensions between friends can arise from something as minor as an unanswered text message. Kids understand that instant messaging isn’t always instant. In my workshops, kids easily come up with 20 legitimate reasons that someone might not answer a text.

In addition to showering, dinner with family, homework, sleeping and practicing music or a sport, they also mentioned that sometimes they just don’t feel like texting. We need to let kids know that this is OK—that whether you are in 6th grade or a grownup, it can be OK to unplug for any of those reasons, including the last one!

Snapchat, textingDespite acknowledging the things a friend could be doing instead of immediately replying, they still get upset. Their feelings get hurt, and often, their anger escalates the longer it goes unanswered. Sometimes they text again, and again, and again—resulting in a screen that looks like this one.

Group texts, popular with tweens and younger teens, are a mess of challenges. Now the issues are not one-to-one (difficult enough!), but over a network. Within a group dynamic, they feel obligated to participate. But how much? Too much can feel overbearing, not enough can feel aloof. Many kids express reluctance to completely bow out, as they fear their peers will talk about them while they’re not there. There are so many potential land mines!

Your own experiences with navigating relationships can be so helpful to your child. Remember that you have wisdom…and try not to panic when things go wrong in your child’s digital world. Some challenges are inevitable and learning to deal with them is part of growing up in the digital age.

 

So what can you do to help your kids with texting, NOW?

      • Model patience. This is the single best thing that you can offer your child. For instance, when you text your spouse and don’t hear back immediately, pounce on this as a real-life teaching opportunity. Speak aloud, and talk through all the things your spouse could be doing instead of answering your text. Talking to a colleague. On the phone with a client. Driving. Running to catch the bus. Just because you send a text message doesn’t mean that the recipient needs to drop everything to respond!

      • Avoid emotional issues. Text messaging is a great way to stay in touch and feel connected to your peers. It’s great for quick exchanges, planning, and meeting up. In other words, functional and practical uses. Emotional issues, on the other hand, don’t translate well in text messages or social media. They are too complex for such a simple medium. Teach your kids to stick to the functional aspects. That doesn’t mean that you can’t show support for a friend with a well-timed smiley emoticon, but talk with your kids about different situations so they can get a feel for what’s appropriate and what’s not.

      • Express boundaries. Help your child: 1) set some rules on her own; and 2) construct some simple language for expressing a clear boundary to peers. For example, “I don’t group text” or “I can’t respond to texts after 9 pm.” Not only does this teach them about boundaries (useful in general too!), but it also helps them feel less worried about how they will perceived if they don’t respond right away. Their need for inclusion makes it very difficult for them to come up with this on their own, so it’s a great opportunity for you to help.

      • Take it offline. When kids have a conflict, they need skills to mend fences in person. A sense of urgency can take over when trying to resolve a dispute. It can escalate quickly. Exercise restraint, be patient, and resolve the issue in a face-to-face discussion. The phone can work, too—but it’s extremely difficult to successfully resolve an argument via text message. Teach your kids to defer with a simple message, such as, “Texting might not be the best way to discuss this—can we talk F2F?”

      • Invent your own solutions. I love doing this exercise with kids. Pose a question to them—what would you invent to fix this? One group of kids I worked with invented an app to deal with the challenges of group texts. They offered a way to “step out” temporarily (to do homework or take a shower) without coming back to 900 texts. They also offered a feature for getting out completely, and a reminder about who is participating (since you only see phone numbers for non-contacts) so they would know not to talk about those individuals. Really clever stuff, and it’s such a great exercise to make them cognizant of the pitfalls of texting.

Texting can be fun and fulfilling if your child understands how to use it correctly. It can be an important part of their social sphere, so it’s worth investing the time to help them learn the unwritten rules. I hope that these suggestions help you!

Help Me Get Ready For My Child’s First Cell Phone

When you put all these together, it’s easy to see why this is such a source of stress for families. Do you wish there was a course on this? After years of research and talking with families, I’ve  created:

Phonewise Boot Camp for parents to help parents get ready for this milestone.

This course will cover:

    • Planning and organizing your physical space at home to maximize positive outcomes
    • Common digital citizenship challenges for new cellphone/smartphone users
    • What social skills kids need to be successful with their phones and more.
    • Planning for boundaries around when your child will have access to the device

 

Sign Me Up!

 

 Getting Your Child a Phone? Are you ready? Are they ready? Join my Phonewise Boot Camp for Parents to get ready to support them through this important transition. Would you like informative posts like this in your inbox? Sign up here.

 

Photo Credit: Top Photo is by Daniela Reinsch

What 20 year olds REALLY do on Snapchat (hint: NOT sexting)

Guest Post

By Raising Digital Natives Intern, (20 years old)

Since downloading the Snapchat app last fall, it’s become one of my go-to ways to communicate with the people in my life. I love it. I don’t care if my roommate is in the next room, if I want her to bring me something so I don’t have to get off the couch I’m going to send a picture of my best “please do me a favor” face with a caption such as “Please bring me my charger” or “Want to order me some sushi?” While my example makes me sound extremely lazy, Snapchat is a great way to keep in touch with my friends and family, sometimes even when they’re physically close to me.

Raising Digital Natives founder, Devorah Heitner, asked me to write about “the non-sexting uses of Snapchat.” Is that what adults think Snapchat is used for?

Is that what other people use it for? Well the thought had never occurred to me but I guess you could use Snapchat to “sext;” although I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s really easy to screenshot a Snap—meaning someone can keep it as a photo on their phone and do the usual damage—sharing it with others, posting it on the Internet or even using it as blackmail. As a journalism major who’s absolutely terrified of not having a job when I graduate, I am vigilant about protecting my online image. A future employer seeing anything online that makes me look less than employable is the stuff of my nightmares.

My uses for Snapchat are very quotidian–and light-hearted. I mainly use it to communicate with my friends and with my sister who lives on the other side of the country from me. Especially with my sister living so far away it feels a lot more personal to get a captioned photo than a simple text. The visual aspect gives me a better idea of what she’s been up to and in general makes me feel a lot closer to her.

I also use it to talk to my friends (i.e. asking my roommate for favors). I even have one friend who will only make plans via Snapchat. I would prefer a phone call but if I want to see her I need to send about 15 pictures of my face with the caption “So I’m meeting you at what time?” Every Snapchat I send is captioned. It’s a quick, easy way to have mini conversations. And sometimes it’s just fun to send unattractive selfies to my friends.

Snapchat may not be the most productive invention of the century, but for my friends, sister and I, it’s an easy, fun, visual way to keep in touch. Without it how would I know that my friend who’s studying abroad in Prague keeps seeing dogs inside cafés?

20 year old intern, Northwestern University

Here are a few recent snaps:

My roommate just saying hi (I may have been sitting next to her when this was sent…).

Snapchat? Fun times…What’s it really for?


So Nick Bilton of the NYTimes (and others…) have identified the new app, snapchat as being tempting for sexting. The marketing does seem to favor temptingly topless young women…Any thoughts on other possible uses for snapchat? The idea of a photograph that only exists in the moment has a haunting and fascinating quality…Snapchat art anyone? I want to imagine kids using this for other cool stuff. I searched Twitter Streams to see what the buzz in on the new app, and found this droll tweet:

Funny/sad/sarcastic? Would have to know this young woman more in context to say. If one of my adult women friends said it, I’d think it was pretty funny.