By Teodora Pavkovic of Teop Coaching
The recent revelations about social media’s potential negative impact on young people’s mental health has everyone stirring – not just Facebook’s Head of Safety. In a series of investigative articles released over the last three months, the Wall Street Journal has uncovered some crucial aspects of how Big Tech platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok operate, and how they can affect the well-being of some of their youngest users.
Some of the highlights:
1. The rules of appropriate conduct that apply to all Facebook users, actually don’t apply to Facebook’s most influential users; you may think that group is small, but it actually consists of over 5 million individuals who are able to post virtually anything they wanted without any oversight
2. One third of teenage girls experienced a worsening of their body image issues after using Instagram and 40% of teenage boys experienced the effects of negative social comparisons while on the platform
3. A Facebook algorithm that was updated in 2018 was designed to strongly favor reshared material, resulting in the spread of polarizing and emotionally charged content
4. The Tik Tok recommendation algorithm that populates the “For You” feed works incredibly quickly by analyzing the user’s every move, resulting in assumptions made about a user’s interests that can take them down potentially harmful rabbit holes
Why should this be of interest – or importance – to you as a parent of a tween or teen? As a psychologist, parenting coach and digital wellness consultant, I firmly believe that it has become impossible to talk about children’s well-being and development in today’s world without talking about technology. In addition to this, research is showing us that a growing number of children below the age of 11 are beginning to access social media platforms – even though the minimum age rating for most of these platforms is 13 (in the case of WhatsApp, for example, it’s 16).
If you have a tween, the chances are high that they – whether you are aware of it yet or not – are very much aware of the latest social media trends [hello Squid Game and #DeviousLicks] and are perhaps even users themselves on these platforms. A study that Facebook conducted with the National PTA before their Messenger Kids app was launched in 2017, revealed that as many as 81% of the 1,200 parents they had surveyed had children who started using social media between the ages of 8 and 13.
Panic is certainly a natural, healthy reaction to all of this information, but not one that will help you engage your child in an open conversation about their technology use, with all of its joys and harms. During a back-to-school season unlike any other, when your children are likely to be overwhelmed, confused and disoriented with life already, it’s
more important than ever to open those channels of communication and allow them to share about some of the things that preoccupy their minds the most; at least one of those is extremely like to be technology.
It’s undoubtedly true that our children are Digital Natives who know the lay of their Digital Land in ways in which we probably never will, but the important thing to remember is that they still need that steady, wise presence of an adult who loves them and who will be there to guide them along the path of becoming a healthy and responsible worldly and digital citizen.
Regardless of whether you already prioritize conversations around healthy technology use with your family, these recent revelations about Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok provide a not-to-be-missed opportunity to explore your child’s relationship with the online world, what they do and don’t like about it, and what steps they can take to make it a kinder, healthier, and safer place for themselves and their friends.
I offer you a few conversations starters here (with suggestions for how to deepen the dialogue) that you can easily plug-in to your conversations at dinner-time, while helping your child do their homework, after watching a movie with them, or while you’re driving them to-and-from their extracurricular activities – if a few of their friends are around, even better!
Since these were all inspired but the Wall Street Journal’s investigative reporting, feel free to share those insights with your child too, wherever appropriate. If your child doesn’t use social media yet but does use texting apps or platforms like FaceTime, you can absolutely adapt these to suit your own child’s specific technology use.
– Do you believe that everyone who uses the Internet to create content and communicate with others should be subject to the same rules and expectations?
*Why and why not?
*Who should oversee whether these rules and expectations are being respected?
*What rules and expectations would you like to see everyone respecting?
– A significant number of young people struggle with using social media apps like Instagram – if they feel badly about themselves, it makes them feel even worse. What are the top 3 feelings – good or bad – you have experienced when using social media and/or gaming online?
*How would you help someone if they came to you for advice, saying that social media makes them sadder, more insecure, or really anxious? Would you suggest they don’t use it at all for a while, or just use it differently?
*Have you ever come up with tips for making social media work better for you?
*What is one example of a really positive experience you’ve had online?
*What is one example of a really negative one?
– Things go viral online because they have a huge number of shares or likes – what are some really out-there examples you’ve seen of people trying to push their content to go viral?
*What are some examples of really positive, powerful and helpful content you’ve seen go viral?
*What are some examples of really negative and potentially harmful content you’ve seen go viral?
– Are you ever surprised by any of the recommended content you see popping up on your online profiles?
*How do you think these platforms determine which content to show you?
*What are some of the positives and negatives of that?
About the Author: Teodora Pavkovic is a psychologist, parenting coach and digital wellness consultant, and the lead cyber safety and digital wellness expert with Linewize by Family Zone, a leading global cyber safety company keeping children safe in connected environments. As a certified digital wellness educator and member of both the British and American psychological associations, as well as an advisory board member of several educational and mental health organizations, Teodora is committed to helping individuals and groups preserve and protect their wellbeing and relationships in this increasingly digital world.