Kallie and her brother, Ben, live with their mother, Cassy, who divorced their dad over his repeated use of pornography. Ben was fifteen and Kallie was twelve when the divorce was finalized. Like so many single parents, Cassy had to work full-time to keep the family budget afloat. When she wasn’t at work, she made an effort to do things with both her kids, making the most of the time they had together.
Kallie was very good at academics and got a fair amount of attention for her intellectual abilities. But when her body began to develop at age twelve, she started getting attention from boys because of her looks. She liked this new and “naughty” form of attention. Kallie learned to text in sexual words and slang—known as “sexting”—which only led to sexting with other peers who were sending the same inappropriate messages. As the attention gained momentum, so did the level of sexting. At one point, Kallie was texting and receiving sexual messages she didn’t even understand. The more attention she received, the more sexts she sent—it was a vicious cycle that lasted for more than a year.
Fortunately for Kallie, Cassy became suspicious after noticing a change in Kallie’s behavior and clothing choices. One evening she looked through the texts and messages on Kallie’s cell phone. When Kallie saw her mom with her phone, she was horrified and tried to physically wrestle it away from her.
By evening’s end, both Cassy and Kallie were in tears and hugging each other.
Let’s face it: PCs, laptops, smartphones, iPads, mobile devices, and the bewildering array of apps, networks, and web connections have huge implications for the way we communicate and interact with one another. It’s vital for us as parents to understand how the world of technology is affecting our kids.
Social Media: What Are They?
The sheer number of social media sites and services available today can be staggering to the uninitiated. At the time of this writing, there are at least six influential sites: Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Finsta, Twitter, and Afterschool. Let’s take a closer look:
Nearly 80 percent of youth between the ages of thirteen and twenty-four use this platform. Teens who want to become involved in sexting find it especially attractive because content automatically disappears shortly after being posted. Unfortunately, these images never really go away. Once sent out into cyberspace, they remain there indefinitely. They can also be saved on the receiving end by means of a simple screenshot. No wonder Snapchat is also popular among sexual predators.
Facebook has a strong global presence, being accessed by nearly two billion people every month. It provides some safeguards to protect kids from strangers, but it isn’t invulnerable. Users can block anybody—including parents—from accessing their pages. Yet the fact remains that Facebook is not truly private. In the final analysis, it’s a public platform subject to outside surveillance.
Like Facebook, this photo- and video-sharing service includes built-in mechanisms designed to filter out lewd or nude images. But also like Facebook, its safeguards aren’t necessarily fail-safe.
This is the “real” Instagram platform teenagers use. They use their normal Instagram account to represent how they want others to perceive them. They know their parents, sports coaches, and even college admission departments check Instagram accounts. Finsta is where their unfiltered messages are posted—the mean, honest, raunchy stuff.
Twitter is designed to enable users to broadcast photos and short, pithy messages to a select list of followers. In effect, it’s a public forum granting users access to a potentially unlimited audience. Contact with strangers is not only possible but practically a given. What’s more, this platform includes no restrictions against foul language, adult topics, or nude images.
Afterschool is a phone app that is extremely easy to hide, and it’s completely anonymous. In theory, this is where you get help with homework because you can talk with other students and can even access teachers if there’s an actual question. Since it’s totally anonymous, it’s rife with mean, cutting, nasty, and degrading comments.
The Pros of Social Media
It’s worth acknowledging up front that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram aren’t all bad. A great deal depends on how you use them. With that in mind, we can point out several positive aspects connected with the use of social media.
Staying connected. Services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat make it easy to keep in touch with friends and family. They’re also a great way to reconnect with past acquaintances.
Strengthening existing relationships. Social media shine brightest as a means of supporting or enhancing existing, nonvirtual relationships. Spouses can use them to exchange love notes during the course of the day. They’re also a great way for us as parents to keep tabs on our kids.
Modeling positive use. Under the right circumstances, social media can influence teens and young adults to emulate healthy and socially constructive behaviors. An interest in sound exercise regimens, good eating habits, and involvement in public issues can all be stimulated through conversations on Twitter and Facebook.
Finding a voice. In moderation, social networking can provide some kids—especially the shy and retiring types—with opportunities for self-expression that they wouldn’t otherwise have. This in turn can help boost their self-esteem.
The Cons of Social Media
Social media can be a good thing when used carefully. But when we get down to examining the actual practices of real people, it becomes clear that the negatives easily outweigh the positives. This is especially true in the case of younger users. Here’s a list of some ways in which media overuse and abuse are having a negative impact on all of us—psychologically, physically, emotionally, and culturally:
No privacy. To begin, there’s a basic principle that every user of social media needs to remember: nothing you do in “private” is ever really private.
Virtual reality versus actual reality. So-called virtual reality is an ever-present aspect of all forms of cyberculture. Once they log on to Facebook or Twitter, some people have a tendency to assume the attitude of another person living a parallel life in a parallel world.
Internet narcissism. Social media users have a tendency to reveal only the best and most attractive aspects of their lives. This easily leads to comparison, conflict, jealousy, envy, rivalry, discontent, and, ultimately, depression for those who feel they can’t measure up.
For example, Snapchat dysmorphia is a more recent term that refers to people wanting to change their face through plastic surgery to more closely resemble their altered face on Snapchat. The idea of altering the body to be more beautiful is not new, but it is being taken to a whole new level when adding the unrealistic morphing that technology editing can create. The person wanting to have his or her face changed wants the affirmation received from an altered Snapchat picture.
Disengagement. Some research suggests that teens who spend hours every day tapping messages onto screens instead of talking face-to-face with real people are suffering serious impairment of basic social skills. They’re losing the ability to read simple communicative cues such as facial expression, tone of voice, and body language.
Brain impairment. Designers of mobile devices are increasingly engineering their products with an understanding of how human brains work. By stimulating the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine into the reward and pleasure pathways of the brain, device overuse can create unhealthy dependencies or even addictions. Overexposure to media can also lead to sleep deprivation, interruption of healthy routines, shortening of attention spans, and academic problems in school.
Pressure to conform. Psychologist Mary Aiken has connected excessive social media use with “groupthink” and something called risky-shift phenomenon.1 It has long been known that people in groups—especially adolescents—have a tendency to egg each other on to engage in risky behaviors. The larger the group, the greater the conformity.
Ill-effects of multitasking. Social media have also been linked with so-called multitasking. Most kids believe that they can do their homework, send Tweets, check Facebook, and listen to music all at the same time, without missing a beat. But research shows that, for most people, multitasking leads to a loss of focus and comprehension.
Involvement with pornography. Most teens aren’t aware of the potentially dire consequences of sexting. Nude selfies posted online qualify as a form of child pornography. The shame of getting caught up in this kind of activity can be too much for some kids to bear, leading in many cases to severe depression and suicidal thoughts.
Cyberbullying. Bullying over the internet is a threat that some kids face twenty-four hours a day. This kind of treatment produces serious depression, which in turn can open the door to suicidal thoughts.
Sexting and Child Pornography
Both you and your kids need to understand that it’s illegal to produce (take a photo), distribute (send a photo), or possess (save a photo) of a naked child; it’s called child pornography. For obvious reasons, sexting has the potential to incriminate participants on all three levels. There are a number of ways that sexters can be discovered, including law enforcement surveillance, monitoring by internet servers, and hacker activity.
If your child says he can study and be on the phone at the same time, review this checklist with him:
- What are you watching or listening to?
- Does it take you longer to finish your homework when you’re also on your phone?
- How are your grades right now?
Once your child has considered these questions, share what you’ve learned about multitasking. It’s really a myth—even for adults.
Statistics indicate that victims of cyberbullying are almost twice as likely to attempt suicide as their nonbullied peers.2
Extramarital Affairs. This is for us as parents. Divorce lawyers and marriage counselors both know Facebook has become the single-greatest breeding ground for infidelity. Nothing—not swinger’s clubs, chat rooms, workplace temptations, nor pornography—comes anywhere close. Many, many affairs either start or are made easier to maintain by Facebook. As a spouse and parent, you need to answer this question: Is the momentary enjoyment I get from being on Facebook really worth the risk to my marriage and family? Before you answer, “It’ll never happen to me,” think about how you’d respond if your teenager answered that way to a warning about being sexually active. Again, is it really worth it?
Meeting the Challenge: A Strategy for Parents
Given these dangers and drawbacks when it comes to social media, we can’t afford to be passive in our parenting. This is an area of our kids’ lives where we need to be personally and proactively present at all times. Here’s a suggested plan of action:
Take a self-assessment. Before talking to your kids, take stock of your own social media habits. Teenagers have a nose for hypocrisy. They can tell when your walk doesn’t match your talk. The Social Technology Self-Assessment Checklist on the next page will help you get a better idea of where you stand in this regard.
Be a positive role model. Once you’ve got control over your own electronics use, show your kids what it means to keep this area of life in line. You’d be surprised how powerful your example can be. According to the Pew Research Center, “Parents are the most often cited source of advice and the biggest influence on teens’ understanding of appropriate and inappropriate digital behavior.”3 That’s great news!
Develop a workable safety plan. As you develop your plan, consider these suggestions:
- Be educated and clued-in. Know the built-in safety parameters and filtering features of various social media platforms.
- Make up your mind to be the parent. Get serious about your responsibility to protect your children against cyberbullies, sexual predators, and the pitfalls of social media culture.
- Understand that it’s okay for kids to be bored. Placing limits on their use of social media won’t kill them. It might have the benefit of forcing them to find other things to do.
- Impose reasonable age limits on social media use. We’d recommend that no one younger than high school age be permitted to have a Facebook or Twitter account.
Set realistic goals. When you know what needs to change, map out a strategy for achieving your goals. You may even want to draw up a Social Media Use Contract and post it in a prominent location in the house. It might include the following points:
- Limit social media use to one to two hours per day.
- All screens must go dark at least one hour before bedtime.
- Ensure accountability. Share passwords and restrict social media use to public areas of the home.
- Use content filters like Forcefield. A thirty-day free trial is available at Fotf.Forcefield.me.
Adopt a multistep approach. Don’t expect to achieve all of these objectives overnight. Realize that you can’t catch everything and that no one can be a perfect parent.
Build a strong, healthy relationship with your kids. Your teens desperately want close relationships and connection to others. Help them find this sense of belonging at home. This will happen as you foster mutual respect and take time to communicate with them.
Do What You Can Do
Social media have become practically ubiquitous in contemporary culture. There isn’t much that you can do to change that fact. But you can provide your kids with guidelines and good examples that will prevent them from getting into trouble. With a little foresight and knowledge, and lots of communication with your kids, it’s possible to minimize the potential dangers. And if something does go awry, those critical lines of communication will help you fix it.
- Mary Aiken, The Cyber Effect: An Expert in Cyberpsychology Explains How Technology Is Shaping Our Children, Our Behavior, and our Values—and What We Can Do About It (New York: Random House, 2016), 197-198.
- Amanda Lenhart, Mary Madden, Aaron Smith, Kristen Purcell, Kathryn Zickuhr, and Lee Rainie, “Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites, Part 4: The Role of Parents in Digital Safekeeping and Advice-Giving,” Pew Research Center, November 9, 2011, http://www.pewinternet.org/2011/11/09 /part-4-the-role-of-parents-in-digital-safekeeping-and-advice -giving/.
- Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin, J. W. (2010). Bullying, Cyberbullying, and Suicide. Archives of Suicide Research, 14(3), 206-221.