SOCIAL MEDIA CAVEATS: A NOTE TO PARENTS

WARNING! This message contains some troubling information about children’s use of social media.

Today’s children are called “digital natives.” It is also said that they are tech savvy. They have been raised in an era where technology is ubiquitous; however, their connection to the technology has been largely passive - turn on the device and use it. Today’s youth are not tech savvy, but tech dependent. According to recent surveys, children between the ages of eight and twelve, the so-called tweens, spend nearly six hours per day on media that include online video and music, video games, texting and posting. The average teen uses media for more than 1/3 of the day, and close to 2/3 of that time on mobile devices. What are the effects of this technology on children, in particular social media?

For some time, there has been a consensus among those in the education, psychology and cognitive science communities about the dangers of social media and Internet use for children. As a school headmaster, I make it my business to read up and stay informed on topics like this one. Unfortunately, I have also seen firsthand how unmonitored social media and Internet use outside of school has negatively impacted some of our own students. You may not believe the things the youngest of children can stumble upon, get entangled in, or become addicted to. The fears of many parents are all too often based in realities.

Cyber-bulling, soft and hard pornography, including sexting, and profanity laden videos are just a few of the dangers associated with social media and Internet use, and instances of children participating in them happen more often than you might think (for instance, a large survey of young people revealed that 51% of males and 32% of females claimed to have viewed pornography for the first time before they were 13 years old). In addition to these, there are other less prominent dangers that parents ought to consider; I will address some of these shortly. First, however, I have a question for you. Picture in your mind a red light district filled with so-called “adult entertainment,” people carrying on loud “adult conversations” in public, drug dealers dealing, and drunken people walking the streets, among other unsavory characters. Would you allow your 10 or 16-year old child to roam around and explore in a place like this, and interact with the people who frequent it? Of course you wouldn’t. Now, consider that while the Internet and social media are not red light districts, and there are certainly plenty of benefits to their uses, children can easily become exposed to profanity, pornography, and other harmful topics while using them. Sometimes, children stumble across these dangers. Other times, peers introduce them. In still other instances, predators lure them in. Without you to protect and guide them, our precious children can easily become victims.

With this introduction in mind, here are several social media risks you will want to strongly consider and discuss with your children, or in some cases simply steer them away from without discussion:

1. Don’t Talk to Strangers

We teach our children, when they are young, to avoid talking to strangers. Despite our words of warning, little ones still find it difficult to determine just who are the strangers. Well, it is even more difficult to figure this out online as it is common for people to pose as someone else. Children, young and older, fall victim to predators who lure them in to some perverse online activity, and in some cases deceive them into physically dangerous situations. Children need to know that under no circumstances should they interact online with strangers, even “children” they do not know, because they may in fact be adults in virtual disguise.

Related to this concern is the danger of revealing information about one’s residence, school, or current location. Including this private information on social media provides a potential predator with the means to know how to find you. Add the sharing of photos to this concern. Children should not share photos online unless they are going to someone the family trusts as the images contain what is known as EXIF data - camera information that could be used to determine one’s location. As parents, we must regularly monitor our children’s Internet/social media use for this type of danger and provide parameters for conversation and the sharing of photos and personal information.

2. Cyber-bullying and Roasting

No doubt you have heard stories of bullying that have ended up with severe consequences. One type of bullying is cyber-bulling. According to the Texas Education Agency, cyber-bullying involves the use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior by an individual, or group, that is intended to harm others. "Cyber-bullying" occurs when a child, preteen, or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed, or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen, or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies, or mobile phones. It has to involve a minor on both sides or at least have been instigated by a minor against another minor.

On a related note, a fairly new phenomenon you should know about is “roasting.” Roasting takes place when a person uploads a photo of him/herself giving written consent to the roast (or criticism). This invitation leads social media connections to openly insult the person who has given consent. Roasting may start out as “fun.” Unfortunately, in some cases roasting ends up in cyber-bullying and violence.

It goes without saying that parents should discuss the dangers of cyber-bullying with children. A safe rule of thumb for sending messages to others might be “If you are unsure about a message, don’t send it.” Parents should also emphasize the importance of children alerting them in instances when they themselves are targets of cyber-bulling. Regular monitoring by parents can, of course, help to prevent and report cyber-bullying (and roasting).

3. A Picture Tells a Thousand Words – and for a very long time…

Depending on the medium, photos, videos and messages that are posted online may remain online for anyone to see. Even if one makes settings private after a message has been sent, others may have already shared it and those settings may not be private. It is very common today for colleges and employers to search the web and social media for photos and videos of applicants as they make decisions about student admission or hiring employees.

4. Validation, Comparison, and Resentment

Humans crave acceptance. Social media can magnify our desire via “friends,” “likes,” “shares,” and “retweets.” By seeking validation in these ways, users try to define who they are online. Likewise, it is easy for users to compare themselves to others online. “Does so and so really have 1,500 friends?”

Beyond volume, a person can edit his image and create a false picture of himself. Consider the photos people take of themselves in fabulous places, in fancy attire, standing next to luxury cars, with beautiful people (don’t forget the amazing editing/airbrush features one can use before posting photos). It is not uncommon for people to take scores of selfies, to pick just the right one, and to craft some catchy phrase to post along with image. “Like.” Are these images really real? Do so many people really live this “good life?” If so, why don’t I? All of this is difficult enough for adults to navigate. Why should young children live in this world, with this potential stress, validation, and comparison? It’s a recipe for envy, anxiety, narcissism, and anger. The absence of likes, or the presence of likes by certain people, often leads to resentment, not to mention the bitterness that arises from the particular types of posts people share on social media. ​

5. Isolation and Addiction

Social media is like another world. Even when friends are physically together, they can actually be isolated from one another and more connected to users in faraway places. No doubt you have witnessed this phenomenon among groups of children and adults. It’s actually easy to interact with people on social media all day and stay disconnected to family who are under the same roof or friends who live around the corner. Like video game addiction, social media addiction is real. People can become isolated and in bondage to an unhealthy habit. All of us, but especially children, should be speaking and interacting with one another in person, and engaged in a variety of activities each day.

6. Skimming and Loss of Focus

One of the repercussions of Internet use, and the flashes and constant changes on social media, is that more and more people skim information rather than thoroughly read and digest it. Additionally, the ability of people to remain focused has declined over time. In school, and in most careers and vocations, the exact opposites are required for mastery and success – focus and thoroughness are essential.

7. Deadening of Wonder

In a previous headmaster update, I included of list of five things to do to foster wonder in children. Here is point four from that list: Shield children from elements in our culture that deaden wonder such as books, films, videos, music and social media that contain and promote immorality as well as nihilism (i.e. activity rooted in capriciousness, senselessness, uselessness, and frivolousness). While silliness has its small place, it seems to fill a large space in modern American life. Parents cannot completely remove harmful influences from their children’s lives, but they can certainly minimize them and place them in proper context.

Social media was not originally designed for children. In fact, some cognitive scientists have noted that their brain development can’t handle the types of attractions that come with using social media. The bottom line, it seems to me, is that responsible social media use requires a great deal of maturity, self-control, and prudence. This means that if we are going to allow children to use it, we must, like we do with other aspects of their lives, closely monitor it and provide limits for its use.

Ironically, the late Steve Jobs, one of the icons of the tech industry and CEO of Apple, was a low-tech parent. In a NY Times article in 2014, a reporter quoting an interview with Jobs asked him: “So, your kids must love the iPad?” Jobs’ response was: “They haven’t used it…We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” Likewise, in the official biography of Steve Jobs written by Walter Isaacson, the author expresses the same sentiment about the place of technology in the Jobs’ home: “Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at a big long table in the kitchen, discussing books, and history, and a variety of things… No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.” Apparently, this practice is not unique to Steve Jobs. Other leaders in the tech industry have similar ideas about technology and parenting - Click here for more examples.

Recommendations to parents on student social media use:

1. Delay access. Social media is entertainment. It is a want not a need. Wait as long as you can. The more time a child has to mature before accessing social media, the better.

2. Children, even high school children, should know that you monitor their accounts and that you can and will ask them to view their accounts at any time. One way to provide easier access and achieve regular monitoring is to create family accounts, especially with younger children.

3. Ensure privacy settings are in place and periodically check the settings to make sure they have remained in place.

4. Limit social media use to certain times of the day, for a certain number of minutes per day, and to common spaces where you can easily monitor activity (beware that some children wake up late at night to use their devices).

5. At social gatherings, collect the phones and other technology at the door and ensure children interact with one another.

6. Make family meals and other family activities phone/media-free times (for parents and children).

7. Stay abreast of social media lingo and apps that some children use to by-pass parent monitoring. Beware of the “my child would never do that” syndrome. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Here are two sites that may be of assistance: Social Media acronyms and 12 Social Media apps every parent should be aware of

Please know that I am not advocating for a ban on Internet or social media as both are used by our school for good ends. They do provide sundry learning opportunities, positive communication prospects, and wholesome entertainment experiences for many people. Nevertheless, the dangers are real and as parents we need to be wise and vigilant when it comes to our precious children.