What is a realistic way to protect children from social media? Find a middle-ground

Ahmed Othman doesn’t use TikTok, and he doesn’t intend to.

Both he and his younger sibling got iPhones in the eighth and seventh grades, respectively, with only iMessage and no social media. They spent the following year, with their parents who are both computer scientist, teaching them about social networking and bombarding them studies on its effects on teens’ mental health.

Othman stated that “they really tried to emphasize social media as a tool but it can also be your worst enemy, if you make it so.”

Othman, now 17 years old, credits his parents for a “healthy” relationship with his phone. This includes staying away TikTok.

He said, “I feel that TikTok may not be beneficial to me because the algorithm is so powerful.”

Othman is an outlier in his peer group, with nearly two thirds of them using TikTok, either with or against their parents’ consent, according to Pew Research Center.

Othman’s Parents took a middle-ground approach, which a growing number experts believe is the most realistic way to teach children about social media. Rather than an outright banning or allowing children free reign, they suggest a slow and deliberate onboarding, giving children the information and tools they need to navigate in a world where places like TikTok and Instagram are nearly impossible to escape.

You cannot expect kids to jump into social media and learn how swim on their very own, said Natalie Bazarova. She is a professor of communication at Cornell University, as well as the director of its Social Media Lab.

They need instruction. “They need to practice how to behave in social media.” They must be aware of the risks and opportunities. They also need to be taught in an age-appropriate way.

Few guardrails

In the 20 years since Facebook launched, the harms caused to children by social media have become well documented. Multiple studies have shown that kids who spend a lot of time on social media – especially when they’re tweens and young teens – are more likely than others to suffer from depression or anxiety. However, it’s not clear whether there is any causal link.

Pornography and violent content are among the most common. Also, they are subjected to bullying, sexual harassment, and unwanted advances by their peers as well adult strangers. Teenagers’ brains have not yet fully developed and are more susceptible to social comparisons. Even happy posts by friends can send them down a dark path.

The lawmakers have been paying attention and held several congressional hearings on the topic of child safety online. Most recently, in January. The last federal law to protect children online was passed in 1998, six year before Facebook was founded.

Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon-General, issued a warning in May saying that there was not enough evidence showing social media to be safe for children. He urged policymakers, to regulate social media harms the same way as they do car seats, infant formula, medications, and other products used by children. He stressed that parents can’t be everywhere at once, though some, like Othman, do try.

Othman wanted to buy a phone that had “everything on it and no restrictions”.

He said, “But now that the years have passed, I can really appreciate and understand what they did.”

Not enough

The Othmans approach is not for everyone. Many parents aren’t computer scientists and don’t have time to teach their children about social media.

Even if parents are diligent, it’s not a guarantee that their children will avoid the traps of social media.

Neveen Radwan believed she had done everything right by giving her children mobile phones. She put restrictions on their accounts and passwords, took away their phones when they went to bed, set everything to private.

Radwan, a 20-year veteran of the information technology industry, said, “I ensured that everything was airtight.”

Her daughter did not get a mobile phone until the age of 13. In eighth grade, she began using social media. She was diagnosed with anorexia at age 16.

Radwan remembered, “We were in the early stages of the Covid lockdowns and they progressed quickly because we were home at the time and she was using social media a lot at that time.”

The teen, an avid athlete, began searching for ways to stay fit and healthy on Instagram. The algorithm soon began to show her social media challenges, such as “how to keep under 500 calories per day” and “if your goal is to remain skinny, you must be able fit into a baby swing”. Radwan reported that her daughter would be in the hospital within two to three months.

Radwan has spoken out about the dangers of social media for teens. She also filed a lawsuit in order to hold Facebook and Instagram parent Meta Platforms Inc accountable for any harms caused by its platforms to children and teenagers. Her daughter is now in college and has recovered.

Are schools the solution?

The Associated Press interviewed teens and experts who all agreed that parents play a major role in the process. However, the majority of them said they believe schools are the best place for children to learn about “digital citizenry”, a term which includes media literacy, cyberbullying and social media balance.

“We have sexual education.” “We don’t know about things like online safety,” said Bao, an 18-year old freshman at Vanderbilt University. “And many kids are dying from suicide, you’re aware, text sextortion. “I think that it is really important for the school to also teach this.”

While some schools do offer programmes on digital literacy and online safety, they are few and far between. Teachers are already under pressure to teach the standard curriculum, while dealing with funding and staffing issues. Kids are also encouraged to use social media to take part in extracurricular programmes and school activities.

As with parental bans on phones, some schools choose to ban them completely. But kids find a workaround. Students say that they can get around the bans at schools who collect gadgets in the morning by bringing in fake phones. In order to circumvent parental restrictions, students set up fake social media accounts using friends’ phones or computers, or purchase burner phones that they can use after returning their official phones.

“Hope isn’t a strategy.” “Pretending that (social media), doesn’t even exist, is not a good strategy either, as we need to deal with the real world,” said Merve Laspus, vice-president of education outreach for the nonprofit Common Sense Media. The curriculum on digital citizenship is used by more than 90 000 schools in the US.

Our kids are exposed to it. It’s something they hear from their friends. The need to be connected hasn’t changed. “These are the same pressures that we experienced as children.”

He said that to really connect with children, it is best to dig deeper into their social media pressures and confirm that they are real.

Lapus explained that the problem is that the focus of attention is only on the problematic aspects of the tool. “We frame these tools only as problematic tools very quickly and easily. Our kids will say that you don’t really get it. I can’t speak to you about these issues because you don’t understand.”

Nonprofits Step Up

In the last decade, many nonprofits and advocacy organizations – often run by young people who have struggled with social media themselves – have appeared to offer assistance.

Larissa May was in highschool when she stumbled upon social media. She had no idea of its dangers, or how to utilize it. May claimed that social media had exacerbated her depression and anxiety. She became “obsessed with” social media and digital advertising in college. She ran a fashion blog, where she posted every day.

May said, “I reached a point when I spent 12 hours or more a day in my bedroom on my phone, more focused than ever on the world around me, on my mental and physical health, on my sleep, on my digital identity.” She nearly took her life.

The turning point was when May began to see a psychiatrist nearly every day. She received clear instructions on what she should do: take antidepressants; start moving, sleep and socialise.

May explained that she was “spending all day on my mobile phone,” which they did not address. This prevented her from being able to do all the things she wanted. It wasn’t until I had a midnight thought one day, “Why can I not heal?” It was because I had not healed my relationship with the technology.”

HalfTheStory was launched in 2015 with the intention of collecting stories from young people like Othman, to better understand how social media affected them.

She said, “I found out that I was not alone in my struggle.”

HalfTheStory helps young people build better relationships with the technology they use, on their terms. This work begins in middle school, even before many kids own a device.

According to May, the solution for teens’ social media problems is not abstinence.

She said that she learned from each and every one of her teens that they wished their parents had set more boundaries. “I think parents are afraid, because a lot violence and conflict erupts when people use their devices.” – AP

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