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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)

Should you post about where your child is going to college?: #Decisionday dilemmas

If you are in a community with lots of college bound kids you may have noticed a few (or a few hundred) shares in your timeline recently about where seniors were accepted at college and where they plan to attend. In Chicago, where I live, families are also posting about acceptances to high school.

This can get tricky–for kids who may not want their parents to post, for young people who won’t be attending their “dream school” and for anyone who is feeling anxious about the future. Especially after a very tough year of pandemic high school.

Admissions season can be hard for parents who have young adults on a different path. Maybe your son or daughter is considering trade school, an apprenticeship, community college or heading into the workforce. Maybe their gap year will be an epic year of service or maybe they are planning to work and save while they figure things out.

If you have a teen looking at credit recovery after a rough year of remote school, know that you are not alone. And so many teens have had their progress upended by a mental health crisis. There are also many families that don’t have tuition money right now who are having to make alternate plans.

Some parents have told me they wish other parents just wouldn’t post about college choices. Young people have told me their parents’ posts make them cringe. Many of the teens I spoke with are very sensitive about bragging and concerned about making friends feel bad. They have been thoughtful about letting friends know one on one, especially if they are applying to the same schools. High school students are also very supportive of friends who don’t get in. We can learn from their example.

I spoke to Julie Jargon about this for the Wall Street Journal. Often, teens have had more social media experience than their parents and use Instagram and other apps in a more nuanced way. Some applicants also seek solace and commiseration in the genre of college rejection Tik Tok.

Here are a few suggestions about getting through this season to save for next year:

1) Consent is everything. Most importantly–as with any social media post– but especially in the face of big deal news–get permission. If they say no, just don’t post.

2) Timing is important. Has your child shared with the folks they want to tell? Don’t steal their thunder.

3) Consider the audience. We are all hungry for good news. I am not suggesting that you hold out on grandparents who are eagerly awaiting updates, but take a moment to consider: Who really needs to know? If it is just family and close friends, can you simply send a text or jump on FaceTime?

4) Don’t share til they are sure. If your teen hasn’t decided, sharing the list of possibilities may create pressure for them, as people may ask them about these different schools. Also, posting each acceptance one by one may be a bit much for your followers.

5) Have empathy for yourself and others! Parents are going through a lot right now, and even in a non-pandemic year, sending teens out into the world is emotionally fraught. Over-posting may not be the best way to deal with anxiety, but…have compassion and feel free to use the “unfollow for 30 days” feature or something along those lines if someone’s posts are making you feel stressed. And have empathy for that person’s teen, who may be cringing (or blissfully ignorant) about parental posting.

6) Unplug and take a break. If you or your child is stressed by the “seniors on Instagram” that some high schools create, or the flurry of sweatshirt-wearing, pennant waving posts….take a break from social media. Go outside! Ride your bike. Find a way to unplug from mid April to mid May at least. See above about unfollowing the folks who are getting to you.

7) Remember life is complicated! Some 17-year-olds may seem to have their future planned out. Of my adult friends, I have one or two who had the correct guess about their adult career path at that age. Many of us are in careers that didn’t exist when we were 17. Your undecided kid who can admit they are not sure what they want to do is being honest with themselves and with you. It will be OK.

Finally, congratulations. We’ve almost made it through this tough school year.
Whether you pandemic homeschooled, masked up for in-person, or managed remote school…You are here! Whether your child got good grades or will have to do summer school… You are here! Our families, our communities and our world have been through a traumatic experience. And it isn’t over.

If you are reading this, then you are lucky enough to still be here. So, take a moment to breathe in and out.

Don’t scroll if it is hurting you. If you do scroll, send empathy towards all who are posting and all who are not posting. We all need it.

Raising A Digital Kid? Empower them to Mindfully Add Contacts

If you can empower your child build their contact list slowly and deliberately, this can help them to avoid overwhelm later on when they scroll through their contacts and don’t recognize half of them. Make sure your child  knows it’s perfectly fine to simply ignore requests from people she doesn't know or don’t want to chat with.

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How Student Activists Are Using Their Skills to Chart a New Path

While many adults worry about kids misusing their digital devices, I am consistently impressed by the ways many young people are using social media to make positive changes in the world. The outspoken students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL are an inspiration – and give us renewed hope that change is possible.

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parenting tweens in the digital age, parenting tween girls, books on parenting tweens

6 Truths About Parenting Tweens in the Digital Age

Parenting tweens gets a bad rap. In my work helping parents and schools with kids and social media, I hear a lot of complaining about kids between 9 and 13 “growing up too fast,” being “immature” or “distracted.” My digital citizenship workshops with kids this age have given me a window into their creativity

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other parents, uncomfortable conversation, kids and technology

How to Talk to Other Parents About Their Child: New Rules for the Digital Age

What happens when one of your kid's friends is doing something inappropriate with social media or the Internet? Having that "uncomfortable conversation" may not be fun, but looking out for each others' kids is good for all of us as parents.

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conflict resolution, mentorship, digital devices, texting, text messaging, social media, kids and technology, kids and social media, tweens and technology, tweens and social media, bullying, social media conflicts, social media conflict resolution

Conflict Resolution for Digital Natives

Kids deal with small conflicts every day - it’s part of growing up. But for today’s “always-on” digital natives, there are additional layers of complexity. Constant connectivity complicates their social sphere. Here’s how you can be a good mentor and teach conflict resolution to your own digital natives.

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Tweens and Teens Dating in the Digital Age

Romance, Love, and Crushes in the Digital Age

Pew Center for Internet and American Life is one of my favorite sources of useful data on how kids and families are using technology. In October 2015, they released a study showing that, (surprise!) kids are still falling in love, getting crushes, getting mad, getting even, etc.

So things haven’t changed…that much. But for those parents who worry about the new added complications of technology on dating life, I have some good news: at least in 2015, most kids were not actually meeting or “hooking up” with other people online.

It may feel like dating has moved entirely to the Internet, but according to the Pew study, only 8% of all American teens have met a romantic partner online. Though we see a few young people are using Tinder, Grindr and other “hookup” apps, these are supposed to be only used by those eighteen or older. Also, as one mother of a 9th grader told me, despite the racy implications, her son started a “traditional” dating relationship with a girl he met via Tinder. In this day and age, “traditional” meant that she drove her son to a bookstore café to meet the girl in person for the first time while she waited outside. Since then, this particular mom has met the girl’s parents, and have gotten together to go out to the kids’ basketball games and to one another’s school plays. While the kids live 20 minutes apart in different suburbs–and might not have otherwise met–their relationship itself does not seem different to his mother than if they had met at a swim meet or debate tournament.

Connection, Connection, Connection

Once teens or tweens are involved romantically, their expectations are surely affected by the availability of constant connection. This is directly in parallel with the changes in expectations in our own adult relationships. For example, my husband and I were dating before we had cell phones, and our expectations for being in contact (while far lower than these teenagers!), are still more frequent than they were before we had these devices with us at all times. Fully 85% of young people surveyed, expected to hear from their partner at least once a day. 11% expected to hear from their partners once an hour!

Teens are just getting used to all the physical and emotional changes that come with puberty and one of those is the infatuation with others their age. While in the past, flirtatious exchanges were confined to lunch and the occasional movie, today every couple can keep in never-ending contact via the phone in their pocket. When talking to your child, remind her that even though she can reach out to her crush at all times does not mean she has to. It’s okay not to text.

On the other hand, flirting, dropping hints, and trying to figure out how mutual an interest or crush is (age old preoccupations) has moved more into the digital realm. In the PEW study, 50% of teens reported that they used Facebook or other social media platforms to flirt or express romantic intentions.  While they still may prefer to meet at school or through friends, social media is often times where they feel comfortable discussing their feelings.

 

Breaking up is Still No Fun

On the other end of the “feelings” spectrum, kids are negotiating both breaking up relationships and fending off unwanted attention in both the traditional ways (face-to-face, phone) and the digital realm (social media, texting, email). The PEW study reports that 25% of all teens have unfriended or blocked someone on social media because that person was flirting in a way that made them uncomfortable Perhaps, not surprisingly, Teen girls are more likely to receive uncomfortable flirting online with 35% reporting they’ve had to unfriend or block someone, more than twice as many as the 16% of boys who have had to do the same.

 

Talk to your kid

Ask your kid how other kids in their school and community ask other people “out” or to become involved. What are the local customs? If your are concerned about harassment, one way to open the door to conversations about these kinds of experiences is to ask your child if she or her friends has ever had to block someone for coming on too strong–or being too persistent. Make sure she knows that this behavior is unacceptable and that she doesn’t have to put up with it. If the behavior doesn’t stop by un-friending or blocking the perpetrator, contacting the school–or the authorities–may be necessary.

Most of what we know about dating for young people in the digital age should remind us to have empathy for kids…learning to deal with romantic feelings towards other is as awkward, terrifying and exhilarating as it ever was!

 

 

For Reference

Teens, Technology and Romantic Relationships.Pew Research Center Internet Science Tech RSS. 01 Oct. 2015. Web. 31 Jan. 2016.

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Supporting Kids’ Friendships in the Digital Age

I just had a chance to have a conversation with Annie Fox, M.Ed, the host of Family Confidential: Secrets of Successful Parenting. I’ve been a fan of Annie’s parenting expertise and youth mentoring for many years, so I was honored to be invited to be a guest on her podcast.

Highlights: What Makes a Good Friend?

Annie and I spoke about how you can use social media as a locus for talking with your kids about friendships, what makes a good friend and how to deal with conflict and change in relationships.

I shared one of the ways I work with students in my student workshops: helping kids define “what makes a good friend to play online games with, or hang out on social media with?”

And how can parents help their kids be good friends in these interactive spaces?

How can we help our kids have high enough expectations of their peers?

We don’t want our kids to tolerate mean or thoughtless treatment as a matter of course…

Here’s the video (below). Just press the play button to view.
Some of the highlights: Find Clarity Through Boundaries

We talked about how helping your child identify positive boundaries is important.

  • When she has friends over, it is OK to expect the friend to hang out with you and not spend the whole time on the phone!
  • Another important boundary that we can help our kids express to their friends is that they can’t be available 24/7. Kids need to know that they are not being rude if they don’t respond to a status update or text when they are supposed to be sleeping or doing homework.
  • Or, as Annie pointed out, when they are out on their bike and prefer to ignore the buzz in their back pocket.

Digital Citizenship, Helping Kids Define Boundaries

Finally, we discussed the perennial question: How do I know my child is ready for a cellphone.

Hint: It is not a certain birthday… Their skills, responsibility and need for independence (for example to travel around the community on their own) are the most relevant criteria.

It was so much fun talking with Annie. If you are on a roll an want to see all my podcast appearances ever, you can check them out here.

Please let me know your thoughts on these approaches to nurturing our kids social skills or share additional questions you’d like me to cover in a future podcast in the comments.

EdTech & Digital Citizenship expert, Marti Weston reviews our Connecting Wisely Curriculum

In the last few years, since founding Raising Digital Natives, I’ve been working with parents, teachers and students at schools around the country. I was asked to work with a large group of students a few years ago, and I called in a trusted colleague, Karen Jacobson, a school counselor with lots of great experience counseling kids around digital age challenges with peers to collaborate.

After the workshop, we discussed the preponderance of curricula available to educators that focus on Internet Safety, but don’t delve into the identify-focused, friendship-focused territory that we are especially interested. What is the difference between cyber-bullying and just plain mean behavior? How should kids deal with witnessing their own exclusion in social media? How can kids repair when they make mistakes? How can they avoid conflicts when texting? We  decided that we should write a curriculum to share our ideas and exercises that focus on the social/emotional side of growing up in the digital world. Youthlight Press released our curriculum this spring! We’ll be speaking about it at a couple of upcoming conferences. My favorite thing to do with the curriculum is visit a school, lead the students in some of the lessons with counselors, advisors or other mentors sitting in, and then make a plan with those mentors for the work to continue.

We are delighted that Marti Weston, an expert in educational technology integration and digital citizenship has reviewed our curriculum in her blog Media, Tech, Parenting! 

Weston writes: “With its flexibility and its focus on adults as connected world coaches and mentors (not lecturers), Connecting Wisely stands head and shoulders above many other curricula in this category.”

As an experienced educator, Weston makes a case for our curriculum to be integrated into curriculum, as opposed to being taught separately. This is exactly our intention with the curriculum. These values and ideas can be woven into both school and extra-curricular activities and should not be segregated into an “Internet Safety” or “Digital Citizenship” silo.

Weston concludes: “If a goal is to make it clear to today’s digital natives that we expect them to carry out positive and respectful values wherever they work and play, we need to take the time to develop a strategy that reinforces those values everywhere they work and play. Connecting Wisely in the Digital Age is a book and a tool to help us get started.”