Dealing with the Dark Side of Social Media

Teen boy allegedly sexually assaulted drunk girl while mate filmed attack’ is a fearful reminder that parents and schools hold a responsibility to identify social media risk and help teens understand the implications of their online actions. In no way is a man raping a woman ever okay. To video such acts and then distribute them via social media only adds to the horror of such behaviour. For many complex reasons, today’s teens think this is appropriate and it’s not.

Parents can and need to be doing more.

The online and the face-to-face worlds are one and the same for a teen. Teens record their online archive and willingly share the fun, mediocre and brutal side of life. Parents see teens trading the power of privacy for status, acceptance and individuality.

Coupling a mobile device with social media empowers a teen to connect. With a thumb strike, they can move from homework to friendly banter and much more in the privacy of their bedroom. At the same time, social media can disempower parents due to their lack of knowledge, experience and application of social media in the context of a teen’s life.

Driving teen social media actions is the ‘wheel of their emotions – joy, sadness, trust, disgust, fear, anger, surprise, and anticipation’. They intoxicatingly steer mobile devices along the online freeway with little education, few shining examples and a weak moral compass. Open access to adult content is normalising.

Parents can no longer bury in silence our distaste for the dark side of social media. This approach will only heighten parental fear and hold a focus on the tragic headlines and the ruined lives which live under them.

The situation is a bleak picture but not one that should paralyse parents from an action.

An optimal approach for parents minimising the negative impact of social media is to provide structural support for teens, like the model for comprehensive sex education. Front loading children with age-appropriate facts, knowledge, values and experience through school and home could minimise the negative impact of digital life as comprehensive sex education has done to delay the onset of sexual activity, reducing STIs, unwanted pregnancies and much more.

So what can parents do now to mitigate social media risk?

Parents read (watch or listen online) and upskill. Do this from the time a device is in front of a child. A simple search like ‘healthy technology habits for tweens and teens’ will fill a screen with plenty of basic starting points for parents. This 60 second read from CommonSense Media – ‘The New Guide for Managing Media for Tweens and Teens’ will help the time poor.

Set boundaries for the use of mobile technologies including what are appropriate apps for use (leisure and learning).  Communicate and reinforce when screen time is allowed during the week to provide balance. Set limits on the screen time including tv, phone, tablet and gaming devices. Set-up a charging station in the house where all mobile devices are left to charge overnight to have them come out of the bedroom and ensure a sound sleep. Finally, establish when a face-to-face conversation is a given (such as the dinner table), without a mobile device in sight.

As children become teens, ongoing face-to-face conversations about mobile technologies and social media are a must. Peer pressure dominates, and social media will be integral to most teens’ lives. Teens will want and need private spaces online and offline. This situation creates complexity, so building trust and understanding around the use of mobile technologies and social media is important for parents and teens.

Parents can start by searching the reviews on social media apps. Again, Common Sense Media has an excellent App Review section for parents. Have your teen search and read app reviews themselves to balance the conversation. Discuss the purpose, boundaries and content of each app. Where possible have your children share their knowledge while they are on their devices. Have them show what they know and how they use apps. It is important you do this without judgment, to build trust. This action will help parents to gain an understanding of both the entertainment and informative aspects of their online activity.

Most importantly have a plan for when things go wrong, identify people with whom a teen can seek help and comfortably discuss their issues. Check-in regularly with your teen and model what you want!

Sadly, heart-wrenching, graphic stories occur where social media is in use. These are opportunities (when they are age appropriate) to discuss with teens their thoughts and actions as well as a time for parents to reinforce their values.

Mobile technologies and social media can enrich our lives and support our learning. As we grapple with the revolutionary impact they are having, it is now time to accept the risks and actively parent hand-in-hand with our teens.

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