Social media can be an amazing tool. It has helped people break into new job markets, reconnected long-lost family members, and allowed loved ones from around the world to keep up on each others’ lives.
But as with all things, there is a dark side to social media. And as these things usually go, it is our children that are the most vulnerable.
For every positive side to social media, there is a drawback.
Some are more annoying than dangerous. If you’ve ever tried to get a teenager to put down their cell phone long enough for dinner, for example, you probably know what I’m talking about.
And sometimes, the conversations going on through text and social media really are important. Open conversations among teens and young adults about mental health are great examples. But that doesn’t make the struggle for a teen’s attention any less exhausting.
While this issue can be frustrating, it’s not dangerous. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all of the side effects of today’s social media culture.
Of course, online friends can have the same social benefits as offline friends. But that doesn’t mean these benefits can protect your child from the dangers of social media. Only you and your child can do that.
It would take a novel to cover every social media danger out there with enough detail to really dig into the problem. That is why this article focuses on the two largest issues our youth face in social media today: extremist predators and body-shaming that can lead to dire consequences.
There’s no denying that violence seems to be on the rise, particularly among certain demographics.
As this article from Psychology Today explains, today’s youth are sometimes targeted by social extremists. White supremacists are particularly skilled in this behavior, which often leads to violent real-world consequences.
It works like this: a young person—usually someone who is confused about the changing social landscape as we strive for more widespread equality—vents their anger on social media. Extremists find these posts through a variety of means, then fan the youth’s anger while comforting any hurt pride the youth might feel.
Over time, this pulls the youth into the extremist mindset, as they feel only the extremists are really listening.
You might think this sounds unlikely, or you might think “my child would never do that.” But as this article from NPR shows, it’s more widespread than you think.
The best thing you can do to protect your child from these types of predators is to openly discuss current social changes with your children. Let your kids know that you’re here to listen—without blame of judgement—so you can work together to understand and grow, rather than reacting solely with anger.
Fitspiration & Body Shaming
While extremists tend to target boys and young men, fitspiration social media accounts tend to focus on girls and young women.
And while some people might think it a good thing to glorify fitness, some blogs take it too far. Even adult women are not immune to the genre’s negative effects.
As the name implies, “fitspiration” blogs are those that post images, videos, and other content intended to inspire followers to attain certain levels of fitness. At least, that is the surface intention.
What most people actually feel is the need to attain a certain body type, and many fitspiration blogs play into this. It is rare to see larger people depicted on these blogs, even though there are some Olympic-level athletes that are far from model-thin.
When young people go through constant and repeated exposure to these images, they feel pressured to conform. And while body-shaming—particularly of girls and young women—is nothing new, fitspiration takes it to a whole new level. There are even blogs termed “thinspiration” blogs, whose whole purpose is to encourage girls and women of all ages to attain a thin body at any cost.
Society pressures everyone to look a certain way. It always has, though we can hope this will one day no longer be the case.
And fitspiration blogs, when used in moderation and under supervision, may be a helpful tool for adults who want to get fit for the sake of health. But when kids are exposed to these blogs and social media accounts, they forget that non-thin bodies can be healthy and beautiful too.
The first step in preventing your kids from the negatives of ‘fitspiration’ and falling down the body-shaming rabbit hole is to not shame your own body when they are around. Our kids pick up on the way we talk about ourselves. And, particularly when they are younger, they mirror what we do.
This makes it important for you to avoid talking negatively about your body, especially when your child is around. Instead, talk about everything your body allows you to do, how you can keep it healthy, and how to feel comfortable in your own skin—no matter your size, weight, or appearance.
As your children get older, this ingrained sense of comfort in their body will help insulate them against more extreme body-shaming pressures. It also teaches them that they can talk to you about their body, because you are not quick to shame them when they do.
If your child is older, you can still model a positive attitude toward your body. However, you might have to admit directly to your child that you’re not comfortable with body-shaming and want to do better.
You can also talk about the distortion that is often found in fitspiration blogs and social media posts. In nearly all aspects of social media, people tend to present only their good side. This means that a photo of a very fit, trim woman may be taken from a particular angle with specific lighting that highlights their best features—and downplays any flaws.
In addition, fitspiration bloggers and models are not above using photo editing to enhance their appearance. That photo or video might not be a truthful representation at all! Understanding this can help your child be more accepting of their own body and aware of the tricks of social media.
Older kids and teens are more aware than many people think. They will appreciate your honesty, as it teaches them they can talk directly about the pressures they’re facing too.
A Note on General Predators
Although it would take a full novel to properly address the challenges today’s kids face online, I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t make a note about general predators. The section on extremism above details those particular kinds of predators—and make no mistake, that’s what they are.
But there are other kinds of predators that your children might face. They come, largely, in two forms.
The first of these predators is the infamous cyberbully. More often than not, your child will know their bully offline as well if they become the target of cyberbullying.
This can take several forms, though usually cyberbullies will often either leave nasty comments on the victim’s posts, or they will post something nasty about the victim to their own account.
In extreme cases, cyberbullies will encourage their victims to self-harm or commit suicide. This usually happens when the victim expresses an unstable mental state on their own social media. A space that should be a safe location to discuss mental health becomes a trap when cyberbullies are involved.
There are several steps, however, that you can take to help your child. This site from the US government has several tips on how to prevent cyberbullying.
The most obvious is to talk to your kids about what cyberbullying is and why it is wrong. This helps them identify it when it happens to them and will also prevent them from becoming bullies themselves.
The other kind of predator is one that most parents already fear, and that is one that approaches a child with inappropriate contact in mind. Just like when we were kids and our parents warned us not to talk to strangers… the same threats are present today.
But with the current social media climate, not talking to strangers is sometimes just not an option.
Children today are rarely limited to playing games on sites designed with them in mind. They are openly part of the wider online community and, as such, are exposed to more. And while this lets them learn new things, it also means they need more protection.
When you talk to your kids about the kinds of people they might run into online, you need to talk to them about inappropriate sexual contact from adults.
It will be awkward and it could potentially upset both you and them. But if they are not warned, they will not know what to look for and report to you.
By talking to your child about this, you can give them a list of things that they can tell you about and assure them that they won’t get in trouble for it. This may include things like messages or comments that are overly focused on the child’s appearance, body, or clothing.
They should also be aware of any contact that seeks to find out more personal information about your child, such as their location, their age, where they go to school, or their willingness to meet up.
And, just like when we were kids, make sure you tell your child not to share too much online. Yes, they’re going to be interacting with a wider range of people than we used to, and social media is all about sharing your life.
But encourage them to keep things like their location, their contact information, and their schedule private. Advise them against posting things like “Finally out of school!” with a picture of their bus. And help them figure out how to turn off the location on their social media accounts.
Social media is an amazing invention. It can bring the world to your fingertips and connect you with people who enrich your life in ways you could never have imagined before.
But it also opens a door into your home—and your family—that only open communication can secure. It’s best to talk to your kids as early as you can about the problems they might face in social media. It will show them that you’re “on their side” and looking out for them because you’re willing to talk, rather than jump to conclusions.
Some families are opting for social media cleanses to prove that life goes on without being connected to the internet. Without the distraction of social media constantly attracting attention, families can begin to reconnect in natural wholesome ways.
But if you have an older child, it’s not too late. Even if they already have social media accounts, you can sit down with them and talk about your concerns.
It may be awkward and uncomfortable at first, but it is much, much better than the alternative.