As a parent, it can be easy to focus on the dangers of social media, but there are also some great upsides for families and kids who are old enough who use it. If your children are on any social media apps, or you’re thinking about letting them sign up for the first time, it’s a good idea to get informed about both the positives and negatives of the popular apps your kids are likely to use.
Starting the online safety conversation from a place of balanced understanding about all sides of the social media story will show your kids that you get why they want to spend time on these apps. If they know you understand that there are benefits to them using social media, it may help them take the potential dangers more seriously as well. If your family decides to use social media, it’s a good idea to review the parental controls and privacy settings before they start scrolling.
- Gaming communities: Discord initially rose in popularity among gamers, with particularly large followings of Pokemon Go and Fortnight players. This can allow teens to create new social networks of like-minded friends and learn new strategies and ideas for their favorite games!
- The best of high-tech and low-tech: This app allows all kinds of direct communication including video and voice calling, which encourages more real-time conversation and social engagement than other platforms. The visual lay-out is also relatively minimalistic compared with the overstimulating nature of many other social media apps.
- Dark corners of inappropriate and dangerous content: A user’s experience on Discord depends entirely on which communities they join. There is not a central public forum or “Discover” section, so users have to join specific servers in order to see that group and their content. Discord is similar to old-school chat rooms, so once you’re in a server, you can see just about everything that anyone posts in that space (which can include adult content). With some adult supervision and good curation of kid-friendly servers though, Discord can be relatively safe for teens (just note that Discord currently has no parental controls, so setting things up safely can be a challenge).
- Difficulty regulating direct messages: Some servers are absolutely massive, and all of them are largely regulated by other users rather than official moderators. This can make it relatively easy for predators or scammers to infiltrate servers and target teens via direct messages, since generally anyone within a server can direct message each other. Explain to kids that they should never respond to a message from a stranger online, and to tell a trusted adult if they’re sent anything that doesn’t feel right.
- Expressing creativity: Teens can learn new ways of expressing their creativity with Snapchat’s editing features. They can draw, add filters, and markup photos to add their own creative flair to their content.
- No “likes” or “hearts”: No “like” button means kids won’t have a reason to fixate on how many people reacted to their content. They also won’t be able to compare the engagement on their own posts to that of their peers, which is a major driver of low self-esteem and anxiety due to social media use.
- Strengthening social connections: The first year of the pandemic in particular drove home the need for social connections, especially for kids and teens. Snapchat allows users to easily send each other pictures and videos directly, which can be a really fun way for kids to stay in touch with each other—especially during breaks from school. Unlike other platforms that encourage kids to connect with strangers, Snapchat focuses on connecting kids with people they know in real life.
- “Disappearing” content: One of the big appeals of Snapchat is the fleeting nature of the content users post and send each other in the app. In fact, it was commonly referred to as the “sexting app” when it first launched, because users felt more comfortable sending sexual material in the app because of this feature. However, teens should be very mindful of what they post and send other users in the app, because their content doesn’t really disappear. It’s not only saved by Snapchat, it’s also very easy for other users to screenshot or record photos and videos from the app and save and distribute them elsewhere.
- Stranger danger: The same features that make it super easy for kids to stay in touch with each other also make it easy for them to accumulate large lists on friends in the app—whether they know them in real life or not. This can lead to kids unknowingly sharing their content with strangers, some of whom may have malicious intentions. If your kids are on Snapchat, make sure they have “ghost mode” selected in their settings so they won’t show up on the virtual map and potentially compromise their location.
- Mature content: Snapchat’s “Discover” section allows users to browse content from brands and popular creators which may include inappropriate or mature material. Snapchat does not attempt to age-target this content, so despite the fact that Snapchat has rolled out an update to prevent kids from easily changing their age in the app (a loophole some once used to gain access to more mature material), kids and adults see the same things in Discover.
- Creative prompts and fun trends: TikTok is well-known for it’s viral trends, often involving different takes on a choreographed dance or an audio clip. These can serve as fun and easy creativity prompts which make screen time much more engaging than staring at the TV. It’s important to remember, though, that lots of the music and audio on TikTok is uncensored, so it’s a good idea to curate some kid-friendly trends yourself rather than letting young folks browse the app unattended.
- Useful info and community building: In a well-curated feed, TikTok can be full of useful information and inspiring community engagement. Nonprofits and community groups have started using TikTok to get young folks involved in their causes, and hashtags like #FinTok (which brings up videos of financial advice and investing tips) and #BookTok (which is all about books and reading!) are creating online communities and information hubs that bring together young people from all over the world.
- Highly addictive & can lead to increasingly extreme content: Because of the fast-paced, video-only content on TikTok, it can be extremely easy to zone out and get sucked into a long scrolling session. The videos are short, at around 20 to 30 seconds each, so it can be hard for kids to stop after just a couple. At the same time, the algorithm takes kids down potentially dangerous rabbit holes by serving increasingly extreme content the longer they’re on the app. For example, a kid interested in dieting and exercise videos is likely to get more and more content that promotes eating disorders.
- Prone to bullying and dangerous challenges: Because of features like Duet and Stitch that make it easy to respond to others’ videos, it can also be easy to ridicule or criticize others in a much more personal and public way than leaving hurtful comments. TikTok is also well-known for its dangerous viral challenges, which result in arrests, severe injury, and even death in kids.
- Parental settings are not fool-proof: While it’s possible to restrict your child’s account with privacy settings and parental controls, it’s also possible for kids to get around those controls, or for online predators to masquerade as kids on the app to gain their trust (and, ultimately, access to their private account). Check your child’s settings frequently to make sure they haven’t been changed.
- Just about everyone is on it: Instagram is currently the most widely-used social media app, second only to Facebook (which, let’s face it, kids are using less and less these days). Instagram is not only popular among young folks, it’s a primary space for lots of local businesses, nonprofits, and community groups to communicate with their audiences. You can do just about anything on Instagram, from donating to a charity, to buying a meal, to organizing an event.
- It tells a visual story: The reason brands love Instagram so much is the same reason it’s a great app for creative kids—the grid! Your grid allows you to curate a visual representation of your art, experiences, and loved ones all in one place. Lots of folks like to share their art or photography on Instagram, or even make special accounts just for their creative projects.
- Strong privacy settings: A private account on Instagram is exactly that—private. There is no way for those outside your child’s friends list to see anything they’ve posted without your child first approving a follow request. There’s also no built-in way to download photos from the platform (though there are other ways for people to get those pictures, including just taking a screenshot).
- Damaging to mental health: Instagram has been found by study after study to be the one of the most damaging social media apps on users’ mental health—particularly for teens. It’s commonly considered to be the most curated of all social media, meaning that photos are often staged, filtered, and otherwise made to seem as perfect as possible—which can set kids up for feeling like they have to live up to an impossible standard. Body image issues, depression, and anxiety are all associated with frequent use of this app.
- Inappropriate material: Despite having a “no nudity” policy, explicit and pornographic material is easily found on Instagram. It can even be tagged with seemingly unrelated hashtags, meaning that someone searching for content about a perfectly innocent topic could be served inappropriate images.
- Potential predators: On this platform, you can receive unsolicited DMs from strangers, even if your account is set to Private. According to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, “Sex traffickers and child predators appear to be increasingly using Instagram to identify, groom, and exploit children.” They also warn that predatory adults can easily find photos of minors and “leave sexually graphic comments, sexualize children, or solicit sex from children.” It’s important to teach kids how to block and report users on Instagram, and advise them against responding to unsolicited messages in their “requests” inbox.
- Makes learning easy: A DIY, tutorial, or explanation of anything your child can imagine is a click away on YouTube, making it an ideal platform for picking up hobbies, learning a new skill, or digging in deeper on their favorite topics. However, be aware that this also means that it’s equally easy to research topics you might not want your child investigating without your help, so make sure to keep the lines of communication open with your kids so they know they can talk to you about tough subjects.
- (Some) diversity and representation: YouTube has been around for a long time (in internet years, anyway), so it has developed a robust network of communities for just about every type of person out there. If your kid is into something niche, or wants to explore some aspect of their identity, YouTube will almost definitely have some content they can relate to. Be aware, however, that YouTube has been repeatedly criticized by BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) creators for banning them more often and subverting their content compared to white peers—so it might not be the best platform for your child to learn about inclusion or BIPOC points of view.
- Unlimited self-expression: Since videos can be as long as you want, kids can make entire movies for their YouTube channel if they’re feeling inspired. The space YouTube allows for self-expression and communication with an audience is unique among social media apps.
- Content becomes increasingly radical: Several independent studies have shown that YouTube’s autoplay feature serves users increasingly extreme videos, regardless of what content that person originally searched for. Similarly, The Wall Street Journal reported that YouTube’s recommendations “often present divisive, misleading or false content.”
- Toxic comments: YouTube is pretty notorious for its trolls and cyberbullies leaving hateful comments on videos. The ease of keeping your identity anonymous on this app means some folks feel empowered to say harmful things on the platform that they would never say in real life.
- Bad role models: Some of the most popular kids’ YouTubers publish content that ranges from mindless to purely promotional (like “unboxing” videos). Of even greater concern are some other creators that kids really look up to, who demonstrate dangerous stunts, use profane or derogatory language, or become involved in scandals which can sometimes impact the wholesomeness of their channels.
Like everything in life, no social media platform is all good or bad. Understanding both sides of your kids’ favorite online hangouts can make them more open to seeing your side of any discussions about online safety.
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