In an age when electronics are children’s “go to” form of entertainment it’s essential that parents remind students of the lofty responsibility that goes along with that privilege. I use the word privilege very deliberately, because many children take that notion for granted. Group chats, text messages and various apps are the way kids relate to one another. This is happening in an era in which individuals exercise free speech no matter the cost. So where does this leave us? In a culture in which the new norm makes it acceptable to block individuals on apps out of revenge, cut them out of group chats to be mean and exert power, berate them in front of peers because they can’t be held accountable if adults are unaware it’s happening and post pictures about social events from which others were excluded.
Adults are in the dark for a number of reasons. Parents often fail to monitor their children’s online activity, and children who are targets or bystanders worry about being labeled a “tattle tale” or worry the bullying will get worse if they tell. According to the National Crime Prevention Council 80% of teens reported having no rules from parents regarding internet use, and only 1 in 10 teens will tell parents if they’re a victim of online abuse.
Relational aggression and bullying have become more complicated as the interactions between children have become increasingly savvy. What parents need to know is all individuals are susceptible to being targeted and getting caught up in unkind behavior, even kids typically regarded by others as “good.” It’s a little easier to temper one’s behavior or walk away from a situation when you can read the body language of the individual being targeted. However, when we type hostile comments or agree with someone else’s egregious words with a thumbs up emoji that disappears within a few seconds it’s almost as if it never happened, unless you’re the one being spoken about. For those individuals the impact can be long-standing.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health approximately 2.2 million adolescents in the United States had at least one major depressive episode with severe impairment in 2016. Research has shown that greater social media use is related to higher levels of depression. When I teach students about this we discuss the dangers inherent in constantly comparing ourselves to the snapshots we see on social media, which are carefully selected moments in which we present the best versions of ourselves.
If your child is someone who wasn’t invited to a party but they see pictures on Instagram, it’s difficult not to have one’s self esteem be affected in a negative way. Children whose self-esteem plummets are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors as they seek validation from wherever they can find it or attempt to numb their pain. I routinely encourage children to take breaks from social media when they realize it’s having a negative effect on them.
Another challenge children face is that when they access social media they have endless bits of information at their fingertips and a sense of freedom they may not have the maturity to handle. The frontal lobe, that portion of the brain responsible for impulse control and judgement, has years to go before it is fully developed. Therefore, adults must take steps to prepare children about how to navigate the social dynamics they’ll face online.
This may seem like a huge undertaking, but I recommend going back to the basics. Communicate your expectations about your child’s online behavior as soon as you realize they’re scouring YouTube with friends, doing online research for school or accessing the myriad of apps available to them. Remind them if they don’t have anything nice to say not to say it at all. Encourage them to leave conversations that become unkind or to shut it down by defending the individual being targeted. Prepare them for that moment when they stumble upon information that may not be age-appropriate. Tell them you won’t be angry if they come to you with questions but you will enforce a consequence of they fail to tell you about it.
Social media can be a great tool, but children need to be made aware of the potential hazards so they steer clear of the pitfalls that come with misuse.
Carmen Anderson is a School Counselor at St. Mary’s, an independent co-educational school serving students from Early Preschool (2-yrs old) through Grade 8 located in Orange County, California.