Digital wellbeing expert
Social media puts enormous pressure on kids today. This digital resilience toolkit with a focus on social media will help you make sure your child is ready to deal with it.
Teenager Molly Russell’s suicide in 2019 at age 14 was one of the first to grab international attention as being potentially influenced by content shared on social media. But increases in self-harm and suicide, especially among girls, had already started a decade earlier. According to Jonathan Haidt, PhD NYU Stern School of Business, Social Psychologist, and featured in The Social Dilemma, the number of girls in the U.S. performing self harm compared to a decade ago (around the start of social media in 2009) has gone way up – 62% for older teen girls and 189% for pre-teen girls. With the same pattern for suicide, up 70% for older teens and up 151% for pre teens.
Teens on today’s social media
Today, 85% of teens are using social media, and by the age of 13 – 14, seeing upsetting content online is commonplace. And while teens know where to turn for help (e.g. support lines), they often won’t because they don’t think their experience is bad enough – so they are left with often unresolved, uneasy feelings, which can build over time. Hate or hurtful speech, as well as racism, they said, is everywhere. Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic has only exaggerated the risk of online harm. Teenagers are well equipped to spot strangers, however they struggle with determining the difference between a joke or harmful content in messaging.
But it is not just teenagers that are at risk of harm. The UK Children’s Commissioner has found that three out of every four 10 – 12 year olds have their own social media accounts. From this young age, children can experience anxiety caused by the demands of social media. This includes the need to instantly reply to messages, the need to present “pretty” or “cool” images of themselves, and an urge to chase likes.
These examples provide insight into why, as parents, it is so important we develop digital resilience in our children from a young age. Digital resilience will equip our children with the skills to recognize risk and emotional harm, to recover from difficulties and upsets, and to find balance and perspective in both the on and offline worlds.
Adhering to a perfect world
The Children’s Commissioner found that whilst young children are generally conscious of the need to protect their privacy and to stay physically safe online, they are less aware of how comparing themselves to others, including celebrities, can take a toll on their mental health. There is growing awareness of what may or may not be ‘authentic’ on instagram, with many users now touting the importance of ‘staying true to yourself’ (although this in itself can be anxiety inducing). However, despite a rising value of authenticity, children are conscious of keeping up appearances on social media. Girls are worried about looking “pretty”; boys are more concerned with looking “cool” and having the right clothing.
Watch out for fake influencers
Parents should be aware of the rise of fake online influencers, which may exacerbate the search for perfection. Computer generated avatars, which often have ‘real-life experiences’, have amassed large followings and, like traditional social media influencers, are used by brands to promote their product. Many of these avatars are exceptionally life-like, at times making it hard to determine if they are real or fake.
What are rinstas and finstas?
Comparing their life to perfect images is tough on kids, and as content contributors they feel a need to comply. Many teens juggle multiple social media accounts to meet the impossible demand of being both authentic and perfect. Their main, public-facing profile is referred to as their rinsta (as in real + Instagram) account. The second account is called their finsta (fake + Instagram). Teens use their finsta as a place to post pictures and videos meant only for their closest friends to see. Ironically (and confusingly) this where they can be most real, as they may feel more comfortable posting about the ups and downs of life to a closed set of followers. Their rinsta is likely to be a lot more curated, where chasing likes is an important currency of social validation.
Trolling and cyberbullying on social media
It is a sad fact that bullying and trolling on social media is rife. Unlike bullying on the playground, cyberbullying is difficult for young people to escape, and may also be experienced in private, away from the support of friends or family. About 37% of young people between the ages of 12 and 17 have been bullied online. 30% have had it happen more than once. And during the pandemic, some reports showed an increase of hate speech between teens online being up 70%.
Social media is a leading contributor to low self-esteem and poor body image in young people, and half of those bullied felt they were targeted because of attitudes towards their physical appearance. 14% of respondents never like themselves, with a further 24% saying that they do but only rarely. This issue further exacerbates the anxiety that can be experienced in the search for perfection.
How to support your child on social media
As our children grow, we are hopeful that they will develop the knowledge, confidence and strength to resist adversity, manage uncertainty and recover from upsetting or traumatic events. We call this resilience.
Building resilience when online is just as important. The internet is host to a range of both positive and negative experiences. This is why equipping our children with the skills to navigate and emotionally protect themselves is so important. We call this digital resilience.
How to build your child’s digital resilience toward social media
1. Set boundaries
Help your teenager to put in place the right privacy settings to ensure that they are engaging with people they know or trust on social media.
As a parent, you may wish to use parental control tools such as Qustodio, to restrict their access to certain sites or apps which you feel are particularly harmful to them at their age and stage of development.
2. Spot issues
Encourage your child to be able to identify content which is harmful, hurtful or arising negative feelings, including the search for perfection. Apps with online monitoring like Qustodio can help with reports of online activity and alerts for anything unusual.
3. Stop engaging
Encourage your child to stop engaging with content that makes them feel negative in any way. Help them to block or report harmful content or messages. Encourage them to consider what they are posting or sharing themselves, and how that might make others feel.
4. Speak up
Maintain an open dialogue with your teenager, so that they feel comfortable coming to you with anything distressing that they see. Teach them to never be ashamed or too embarrassed to talk with you about what happens to them online. Highlight both the positives and negatives of social media, and encourage your children to discuss their own thoughts, as well as highlighting how important it is for them to speak up if they witness bullying online.
5. Seek help
Screenshot bullying messages or anything related to sexual predators and share it with the authorities. Don’t hesitate to reach out to professionals if you are concerned about their mental health to give them the emotional support they need to recover from the online experience that they have had.