Opinion: Sorry, parents, you’re not off the hook when it comes to social media and your kids

Editor’s note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor at Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication, writes about women’s issues and social media. She served as spokeswoman for international affairs at the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. The views expressed in this comment are yours. She views more views on CNN.


Most teens say social media is having a positive or neutral effect on their lives, according to a study released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center. According to Pew, teens said social media makes them more connected to their friends (80%), gives them a place to be creative (71%) and makes them feel supported through tough times (67%). Overall, 32% of teens reported the effect of social media on their lives as mostly positive, compared with 9% who said it was mostly negative (59% described it as neutral).

But while a lot of this is encouraging news, sorry, parents, you’re not off the hook when it comes to social media and your kids. The report is not a reason to breathe a sigh of relief and stop worrying about the effects of social media. In fact, just the opposite. It should be a wake-up call that we need to get more actively involved in helping our children make their use of social media a force for good as they deal with the very real dangers they also face online.

This is because the report also contains reasons for real alarm. Teens, but especially girls, have also described a number of troubling challenges on social media. For example, 45% of girls and 32% of boys felt very or little “overwhelmed by all the drama,” while 37% of girls and 24% of boys said they felt very or little ” like their friends are walking out of things for them.” 32% of girls and 27% of boys reported feeling a lot or a little “pressure to post content that will get a lot of comments or likes,” while 28 % of girls and 18% of boys said social media made them feel a lot or a little “worse about their lives.” Even though these teens are outnumbered by others in the Pew report, that still means that a Huge number of adolescents say they are faced with significant mental health challenges caused by social media.

We also shouldn’t be so sure that teens who say social media is having a positive or neutral effect on their lives are exactly right about that. After all, it is very difficult to untangle the unconscious effects media consumption can have on us. A teenage girl struggling with an eating disorder who also spends her time looking at unrealistic images that influencers post on Instagram could very well be diagnosing herself, rather than the platform, as the problem, even if the seeds have been planted on social media .

It’s also important to remember that a person’s brain doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25. So just like we wouldn’t trust our teens’ judgment if they told us not to worry because the alcohol they were experimenting with was drinking a positive impact on their lives, we can’t be sure things are okay on social media just because many teens they say it is.

Case in point: Only 21 percent of teens surveyed said they are very or extremely concerned about the amount of information sites have about them. That’s all the proof we need that they may be naïve about some of the dangers they face online (as, to be fair, many adults are). After all, the data that sites collect about us – to gather information about our spending habits to market and sell us products, for example – can also be used to track our physical location in order to physically stalk or harm us, among other things. what’s this.

But the study indicates that social media can be a force for good because it can help teens feel connected and supported. Many teenagers have also said that it is a place where they can be creative. This might mean exploring different identities and communities that help them develop their sense of self and purpose in life. It can be especially encouraging for teens who are racial or sexual minorities in the places where they live to have the opportunity to connect with others like them online.

As parents we need to encourage our children to use social media for these purposes. But we also need to talk to them about the chilling dangers they face online—from disinformation to scams to sextortion (obtaining intimate pictures or videos of someone and then threatening to make them public).

The fact that so many teens say they feel worse about their lives because of social media is especially concerning. We need to talk to our kids about how the images people post are often highly curated and filtered, so they shouldn’t have to measure their bodies and lives against them. We also need to help them navigate the interpersonal “drama” they say they face discussing how to handle these conflicts in healthy ways. And we face the pressure to seek sympathy by building their self-esteem and teaching our children to take pride in their accomplishments and values ​​rather than seeking external validation.

Schools also need to implement stronger curricula that teach adolescents how to use social media as a source of community and support and how to process and overcome the feelings of exclusion and worthlessness that can come from being bombarded with glamorous images that friends and influencers post online.

Unsurprisingly, teens find a lot to like on social media. But, as parents, it’s up to us to ensure they use social media in ways that promote their well-being and have the support they need to manage the challenges they find online. We cannot be passive followers, we must take the initiative.

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