Monday, November 28, 2022

Attempting to Keep Kids Safe From Harm on Social Media

Raising kids in the era of social media is really, really difficult. We're in uncharted times, when children are growing up with smartphones and tablets accessible from the time they are babies, with technology all around them, and the rules that worked when we were younger no longer work for our children. As parents we want more than anything to keep our kids safe, but with social media arises so many issues, from physical safety to emotional safety, as well as keeping kids safe from inappropriate content, including those with values contrary to the ones you promote in your home.

Safety Then Vs Now

When I was a teenager we were told very strictly not to meet people online, since people could be pretending to be anyone and you couldn't trust that the person you are meeting online is who they said they were. We were told stories (possibly made up) about people who showed up to meet strangers they met online only for them to turn out to be completely different than how they made themselves out to be online only to be kidnapped or murdered. So when I was online, meeting people on forums, I pretended to live in a different country than that in which I lived, and didn't give away personal information unless I was talking to a friend of a friend or someone else whose identity I could verify.

Webcams and video chats changed things because then you could see who you were talking to, and then the advent of Facebook changed things a lot more, because you got to see people's real names and their friends and find out who you know in common, so you can verify people's identities, so there's less of an issue of there being threats of strangers lying about who they are in order to cause us harm.

Today the issues with social media are even more complex to handle, in my opinion. And it really is hard to figure out what to do with it vis-a-vis your kids.

Safety From Indoctrination in Negative Values

My daughters, aged 11 and 8, have been watching videos on Youtube since they were very young. It started off innocuously enough, watching shows that I introduced them to, many of them educational, but then they started getting suggestions for other videos that weren't exactly problematic, but weren't as cool in my books. 

Some of them were Youtube shows about kids their age and their lives. While those aren't in and of themselves inappropriate, these kids often were wealthy kids growing up in wealthy communities in the US, with very different lifestyles than we live, and I saw those videos making my daughters envious of what they had that we didn't. It changed some of their perception of what are norms, because even if we and their local friends didn't have certain things, they saw so many kids that looked like them having those things that they started wondering why we didn't and also had less appreciation for what we did have. 

Then they started seeing videos of these kids doing unboxings and reviews of toys. These started to annoy me even more, because these kids just kept getting more and more and more toys, much more than the average kid, because they were most likely getting these for free so they'd review them... My daughters didn't understand that nuance and started being envious of the kids in the videos and what they had and they kept asking me for what they were seeing in these videos. 

Then they started watching fidget trading videos. Now, if you haven't had the misfortune of seeing and hearing all about these, they upset me to a degree that is possibly slightly exaggerated, probably some type of trigger for me or something.... They are videos of people trading fidget toys with one another, trying to get the "best" ones, trying to scam others to take their "bad" ones, etc... My biggest issue with this, in addition to the scamming aspect, is the blatant consumerism it encourages. It isn't enough to have fidget toys. You need to have more and more and constantly be after better ones to expand your collection. They don't just want to have fidgets,  one slime/clay-like fidget, one popping type, one squeezing type, etc... But it encourages them to have many different types of each fidget, multiples of the same exact types or slightly different, just in different shapes and colors, combined with talk about which one is better and which is special and limited edition, making people feel that they need to have "all the fidgets" because what they have is never enough.

The whole concept of these madden me so much that I banned my kids from playing fidget trading and watching those videos. Yes, this isn't a post about fidget trading and why the idea irks me so much, but I bring this as an example about how videos on social media platforms encourage blatant consumerism, and when you try to keep those types of values out of your home, it is really hard to keep your kids safe from this indoctrination when theyre being exposed to these types of videos repeatedly. And making only kids' Youtube accessible doesn't help because these are all found on Youtube Kids.

Swipeable Short Videos

But then came TikTok.

I didn't let my kids have TikTok, and was opposed to it for specific reasons. With Youtube, you had to search for specific videos, and it showed you those things, or videos from creators you follow. But Tiktok works differently. Because of its algorithms, it just decides to show you video after video, often by creators you never heard of or follow, because it thinks you will like them, because of videos you've seen in the past. As parents, you have no control over what your kids are seeing on Tiktok; anything can show up there. It's an automatic thing when you're just scrolling.

I dislike Tiktok so much for kids. Yes, sometimes Tiktoks are ok, like simple cooking tutorials or crafting videos, but sometimes (many times) they are things I wasn't cool with my kids watching. But they just kept showing up on Youtube in the form of TikTok compilations. So I banned my kids from watching those.

But then other companies saw how well TikTok style videos were doing, and these same types of videos, swipeable short videos that appear based on algorithms and not by choice, were appearing all over other social media platforms. Youtube has it, Facebook has it, Instagram does, Snapchat does, and I'm sure there are many more types. Banning all social media is easier said than done when their friends have it and they use things like Youtube to watch educational videos as well. But especially with these types of videos, there are certain trends that so many people make similar types of videos, usually with the same songs and/or same poses, and/or same text, and when a kid sees so many people make the same types of videos, they want to join the party and do the same as well, use these filters and sound effects to make videos, and they want to post them. And of course, some of these videos that are trending are of people trying to do different sexy things.

So this is where I'm at as a mom. I wish this post was a how-to-guide about how to keep kids safe on social media but there are so many new things coming up all the time, and as soon as I feel like I have one thing figured out, there's another twist that comes out that I need to figure out all over, again and again. And I honestly don't think anyone knows for sure- by the time they do a study about this type of thing, social media has evolved more to the point where they need to figure it out again. As parents, the best we can do is just muddle along making educated guesses trying to keep our kids as safe as we can.

Dangers on Social Media

But one thing I did know for sure was this. While my daughters are old enough that I can't keep them off social media, they are too young to be posting anything on social media. At their ages, 9 and 11, they do not have the maturity or brain development to understand what is safe and ok to be posting on social media or not. Especially because these video trends that they often see and want to mimic are sexualizing people, posting videos on such platforms puts children who do so at risk of being targeted by predators. 

People on the internet are relentless, and even in the past when I was very, very, very careful with what I posted online because I'd seen people doxxed in the past, people worked really hard and from a photo of blurred packages of groceries and the nature behind me figured out where I lived and doxxed me too. If this is what can happen when I'm extremely careful with what I share, children who do not understand nearly as much about internet safety are more likely to share things that will make them more easily doxxed.

Once someone is doxxed, they can sometimes even be in physical danger, with people being able to show up at their house, school, or place of work and able to attack them. This, obviously, is extremely concerning for anyone, but is especially something we want to be able to protect our children from.

But this is not the only thing we need help with when making sure our kids are staying safe from cyberbullying

People are mean. While there are many people who say mean things to people in real life, once someone is behind a screen, especially when it allows anonymity, they often feel safer to be even nastier than they would in person, and even people that would be polite to your face often will be mean over the internet. When someone posts anything on the internet they are, unfortunately, opening themselves up to this online harassment. 

According to a Pew Research study, approximately 41% of US adults experience online harassment. 25% of US adults have experienced more serious online harassment including physical threats, stalking, sustained harassment, and sexual harassment. The younger they are, it seems the more likely they are to experience harassment. 64% of people under 30 have experienced online harassment. 48% of 18-29 year olds have experienced more serious forms of online harassment. These are scary and sobering statistics. 75% of people who were the targets of this type of abuse said their most recent experience with online harassment was on social media.

Online bullying has been linked to suicidal thoughts as well as suicide attempts in young adolescents; kids between the ages of 10-13 are 4.2 times as likely to be suicidal if they were cyberbullied, and even once mitigating factors are accounted for (accounting for negative life events, family conflict, school environment, and racial and ethnic discrimination) it is still 2.5 times more likely. When stories about kids who died from suicide after cyberbullying come up it makes you want to cry and hold your children tightly.

Social Media That I Allow

And so, for now, my daughters watch things, but are forbidden to post on social media, because I want to keep them safe. Only one of my daughters has a phone and I know her password, as well as her password to all her online accounts, and I keep tabs on whether or not she does any of these things. I do allow her to make videos, though she is only allowed to save them to her phone and not post them.

Theoretically, I could forbid my kids all social media, but as they get older, more and more becomes needed, sometimes by schools even.

The only social media on which my daughters are allowed to write or share anything is WhatsApp. (Yes that officially is considered social media.) They aren't yet allowed in any groups, and they only have about 10 people saved in their contacts whom they can message or receive messages from. As they become older, they'll have more contacts and things will change, but this is where it is at now.

Keeping Open Communication

Unfortunately, even if you keep your kids away from strangers over social media, and even if you keep them off social media period (good luck doing that with slightly older kids; you might just get them doing that behind your back as I know I did when I was forbidden as a teen), your kids can experience cyberbullying and harassment, as some is done by classmates via messenger. And they can also experience bullying in school even if they are completely not on the internet.

When it comes down to it, there really is no way to keep kids totally safe. But here's my two cents:

1) Keep them off posting any content on social media for as long as you can, while also explaining to your kids the dangers there.

2) Talk talk talk.

3) Talk talk talk.

Ok, I think you got the point. The thing is, we can't control the world and cocoon our kids even if we'd want to. We need to teach them about dangers so they can keep themselves safe, but we also need to keep communication open so that if something does come up, they don't keep it all inside. Far too many of the stories of kids who died after cyberbullying included that the parents had no idea what the kid was going through. Regular and open communication is crucial.

Kids need to know that they could open up to their parents about any bullying online that they experience. That their parents won't judge them or criticize them for allowing it to happen or their feelings about it. This is, in my opinion, an important part of parenting in general, that kids know their parents love and accept them and especially that they won't mistreat them or make them feel bad in any way when they reach out to their parents for help or support.

But since kids and parents don't always mesh, and a kid might not always be willing to share their struggles with their parent even if their parent does their best, in my opinion it is always helpful to have at least another adult or two involved and close with the kid, ideally at least one of them being a therapist, so that if these things do come up they have who to turn to and open up to and get advice from. Keeping painful things inside makes it so much worse, and a non judgmental listening ear goes a long way towards keeping our kids healthy emotionally, making any mistreatment they may experience have less of a harmful long term effect on their life.

What do you do to keep your kids safe on social media? What are your rules? How old are your kids? What rules did your parents have with you growing up regarding internet use? 

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