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Social Media: Friend & Foe During the Pandemic

The pandemic increased the need to socially connect while physically distancing. How can we guide kids to use the internet to safely connect?

Social media has been a popular way for kids to connect for many years. When we were all locked down and isolated from others due to the pandemic, it was one way for people to socially connect while physically distancing. Social media is a part of our world so we need to teach our kids how to use it wisely.

There is far too much to cover in one post but all of this is really important. I’ve gathered many resources for you to learn more. See the references section at the bottom of this post for many related articles detailing these issues and what you can do about them.

If you like video formats, I have a quick video covering most of this as well – but you’ll still need the links at the bottom of the page.

Risks of no social media

I’ve heard many parents over the years essentially say they don’t worry about it because they don’t allow social media when I discuss the risks. They basically think that since they forbid it, their child won’t be exposed or suffer the consequences.

Be very careful with this line of thinking.

Why? Here are five things to consider:

1. Friends with accounts

First, think of how often kids show their phone to others. Even if it isn’t your child’s account, they will see it on their friend’s device.

2. Hidden accounts

If you allow the app, you can help monitor use. If you forbid it, they may take it upon themselves to set up accounts without your knowledge. It’s very easy to make a free email account and then social sites with that account information.

Unfortunately your child can use any birthdate when they set accounts up with fake information so they will avoid limitations built in to protect younger users.

3. Digital footprint

A digital footprint is your online identity. It’s recommended that we all search our name once in awhile to see what is available for others to find. Our online reputation is permanent and stays there forever regardless of being deleted, so following reputation management is important.

There’s even an argument that if your children are not on social media it may be damaging if they are applying for a scholarship, job, or university admission.

It’s commonplace these days for social media presence to be evaluated when an applicant is being considered. An account that consistently shows positive behaviors and messaging is seen as a bonus to that applicant. Of course an account with inappropriate postings goes against the applicant, but someone without any digital footprint is suspicious. Why? Because social media is widespread. If today’s young person has no digital footprint it can appear as if they’re hiding something – as of they deleted all the negative information and left nothing.

4. Social isolation

Even before the pandemic many kids without social media got left out. Friends chat with one another, share invitations to get togethers, and more online. Without the ability to follow along, kids will feel (and be) left out.

5. Learning a new skill

Much like when kids learn to drive, it’s a process.

You don’t just give them the keys to a new car when they turn 16.

They first study the rules, then take a written test to get a permit. Then they practice driving with a responsible adult in the car. When they have enough hours behind the wheel they can test to be sure they can safely drive. Then they are able to drive alone for short distances in good weather during the day. They add in nighttime or bad weather driving when they show readiness. It all is a set of skills that involves practice and new experiences.

We should treat using the internet in the same manner.

Kids should be given advancing opportunities on the types of sites they can use when they show responsible and safe behaviors online.

It can open your child up to risk if they don’t safely learn how to navigate their behaviors with your supervision. When parents allow age-appropriate social accounts and supervise the use of these accounts, kids can learn how to use them safely. As they get older and show more maturity, they can have less supervision.

Risks of social media

There are a lot of risks to social media. I’ll introduce some of the basics, but there isn’t room to cover each issue separately. Find the topics you need to learn more about in the Resources below.

Remember that just because something isn’t safe doesn’t mean we need to avoid it all together. There were no car accidents before cars were invented. We don’t avoid cars to stop accidents – we make cars safer and enforce safe driving rules. One thing alone isn’t sufficient. We use many safety measures to make car travel safer.

The same applies to using social media (and any online use).

1. Self image

When we scroll through social feeds we see the best of everyone else. We see others over and over again looking great and having a blast. When they get more likes than we do we can feel inferior.

We also forget that many pictures may have been taken to get the one that favors the poster. It can seem like we never look as perfect in pictures, but we forget that others are making a lot of effort to look good.

Although it appears that they’re always having fun and they’re very popular, they could be feeling inadequate because they don’t feel like they can live up to their perfect online persona.

The grass is always greener on the other side. Everyone has down moments and times they don’t feel beautiful or the right size. Those things don’t make it to their feeds. Photos and posts that don’t get instant likes get removed. People work hard for their online image, but what we compare ourselves to is only that image.

2. Cyberbulling

Bullying used to take place on the playground or in the streets, but now bullying follows kids home. It lives in their computer and smartphone. They can never escape it.

Teach your kids to be kind online and to not engage if they see bullying behavior. They should not encourage a bully with likes on a comment or any sharing of negative comments.

See the resources below from Common Sense Media on this important topic.

3. Child predators

Parents often fear that their child will be abducted off the street so won’t allow them to play outside, but a bigger danger is the exposures they can have online.

Child predators groom kids to gain their trust. They have always done this, but now it is easier for them to access your children online.

There are some great resources below to help you talk with your kids about the risks and to learn how to protect them from predators.

4. Sedentary lifestyle and obesity

When kids are attached to their screen they aren’t doing other things.

They aren’t playing sports, going fishing, doing chores, fixing something, dancing, doing art, making music, or doing anything that could help them get exercise, explore talents or build social skills with real life interactions.

Obesity and its associated risks are a consequence of too much screen time. Set screen time limits and encourage daily active play.

5. Exposure to inappropriate content

It is easy to find just about anything online – and sometimes what you find is not appropriate.

Young children might come across a site accidentally and older children and teens might seek sites that are not appropriate for their age and maturity.

Inappropriate content includes sites that are pornographic or violent. It also includes sites that encourages eating disorders or other bodily harm.

Parental control apps can help to decrease finding these sites, but also talk to your kids about what to do if they see something inappropriate. Model healthy relationships and body habits.

6. Sleep interference

Start with turning phones off an hour before bedtime and storing them in your room to help kids resist the temptation to stay up late texting.

If your kids worry that their friends will get mad if they don’t reply, suggest they tell their friends they’ll be signing off at a specific time, so they won’t be expecting a response.

If your child must be online close to bedtime, use an app that adjusts the light. I really like f.lux. It’s free and easy to use.

7. Location tracking

It’s easy to find friends on many apps, such as Snap Maps or Find My Friends. I find this really creepy, but many kids use it to keep track of each other.

If you don’t want people to be able to find where your kids are, be sure to turn off location settings on the phone and in the app.

Resources:

1. Parental Control Apps

There are many parental control apps. Check out these (and other) reviews to help decide which is best for your family. Take a new look every year or so. New products will be available and the needs of your family will change as your kids grow.

2. Common Sense Media

Since 2003, Common Sense has been the leading source of entertainment and technology recommendations for families and schools. Common Sense reviews movies, games, apps and more to help parents navigate the digital world with their kids. Their site is easily searchable if a topic of interest isn’t listed here:

3. Child Mind Institute

The Child Mind Institute is an independent, national nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders. They have many resources for anxiety, depression, behavioral problems and more.

4. PediMom

PediMom is a fabulous safety website developed by a Pediatric ER Physician, Dr. Hess. Articles are written by experts, parents, and teens. A search for “social media” on this site shows these posts and more:

5. Smart Social

6. My related blogs

By DrStuppy

I am a pediatrician and mother of two teens. I have a passion for sharing health related information.

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