How to protect teens from online influences

Working from home on an online business, I feel like I see my computer screen more than I see real people.

Having grown up in a world before cellphones and readily available internet, I still find this a bit jarring at times.

I remember the advent of Facebook as this exclusive community for only select college and university students – a space where you could re-invent yourself and be free. It was a major coming of age moment for me. I needed to reinvent myself after living at home so long. It was perfect. It was private. It was real. It was a space of no judgment. I could finally be anything.

Compare that to the world kids are growing up in now where my toddler niece knows how to work a cellphone better than I do. A world where nothing online seems real, or safe from judgement. A place where you’re never good enough no matter what you are it seems. A place where teens, instead of escaping from the bullies of the classroom, now get hit even harder as soon as they log on to social media.

I was bullied pretty bad. But when I went home I got away form it. Somedays I want to cry thinking about kids who now can’t get away. Somedays I feel real fear for the kids who don’t know a world that isn’t happening online. Kids who don’t know how to be bored anymore forcing them to get creative again. Kids who are addicted and glued to a phone and panic when it is taken away, just for meal time.

Are you scared too? Let’s talk.

Did you know kids spend upwards of 7 hours a day on some form of technology or digital platform?
That in that time they are exposed to 5000 ads?
That the images they come across are heavily altered and filtered and often don’t show any sort of diversity?
That even if they are not looking for it, their daily internet explorations cause them to come across aggressive pornographic acts, just by accident!!
That by age 14, 80% of youth have come across these pornographic images by mistake?
That 94% of those pornographic images depict some sort of violence against women as normal?
Did you know that teens say they feel more free to be mean or aggressive online because they are hidden behind a screen with no accountability?
Did you know teens send well over 60 text messages a day minimum?
That sexting can start as early as 13, yet by that age almost no American teens have received more than two days of basic sex and relationship education?

Um…yikes??

Did you also know that many LGBTQ+ teens say that having online spaces has saved their lives?
That tweens and teens who feel they don’t belong, or experience social anxiety, have said online spaces has provided a home for them that has vastly improved their wellbeing?
That most kids say that they receive important sex and relationship education from online sources, and that when they have health questions they always know that they can get answers online when adults are uncomfortable or unwilling to discuss issues with them?
That fewer kids are having sex because they feel they have more time to explore dating through text and sexting and that they feel safer as a result?
Did you know girls report that sexting has enabled them to learn how to say “no” or “actually, this is what I like” in terms of dating and sex, when otherwise they said they felt they would have had to “give in”?
That marginalized teens and teens can seek out influencers that look like them; their skin colour, their body type, their acne issues…and it has made them feel visible, like they matter!

Wow…OK! That’s Awesome.

So  what do we do about social media then, because it’s scary…and useful! While the addiction to social media is concerning, clearly there are also immense benefits that are helping change the health and wellness of our teens and tweens, most notably those who are marginalized. We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

What is the best thing you can do? Try to understand how your child uses social media. Engage in conversation about what they see. Ask them what they love and don’t love about the online world. Only once you have answers will you be able to make decisions about what to limit, how to limit, what to encourage and how to empower them to use the tool of digital technology to elevate their lives instead of take over.