By Dr. Lea Lis
The Facebook Files recently released by The Wall Street Journal offer an in depth look at what goes on behind the scenes of one of the biggest social media platforms in existence. We now know how Facebook is targeting teens and preteens with content creation and the WSJ reports that documents included in Facebook’s own research refer to preteens as a “valuable but untapped audience.”
Why are these Facebook Files worrisome?
In my practice, I frequently see the negative effects social media has on children, especially tweens. Children are following social media influencers—not only young adults, but other children, as well—who are promoting and doing incredibly harmful things. For example, teens with eating disorders find and follow pro-ana (pro-anorexia) influencers on social media to learn new ways to lose weight. Other influencers are introducing followers to dangerous self-harm rituals, like cutting, as a form of rebellion or self-expression.
These types of behavior should be treated as mental health issues and not harmless entertainment. Their influence can feel contagious, spreading quickly from social media to real life as kids share these accounts with their friends. Even parents who are familiar with the impact of social media on body image and self-esteem may not have any idea what is going on inside their teen’s phone. And there is no one to educate parents or kids.
Social media platforms like Facebook should be mandated to invest in real, unbiased research from an objective third party in order to create a blueprint for impactful solutions. We need to know how to better educate our children— and ourselves—about mitigating the inherent risks of social media use.
But until that happens, what can we do at home right now to minimize risks associated with social media use? Here are my recommendations:
Social Media Safety Rules for Teens and Parents
1. Children under 13 should not have any type of social media accounts.
This age group does not have the skills needed to process the content they are seeing on social media.
2. Monitor your child’s social media apps.
I encourage all parents to perform random checks of their children’s devices. Look at all the apps downloaded and be familiar with their functionalities. Fake accounts, such as Finstas (fake Instagram) are often created with the purpose of doing inappropriate things.
3. Use phone settings to alert you when a new app is downloaded.
Use the tools and apps available to stay updated on the content your child is viewing.
4. Take away phone privileges if inappropriate content becomes an issue.
First, explain to your child why the content is inappropriate. Then unfriend and block accounts that are inappropriate for their age. Let them know that if it happens again without your permission, you will take away the phone.
5. Encourage your child to use social media to engage with accounts and platforms that reflect their interests and offer positive messages.
Direct your tween to educational, uplifting and age-appropriate accounts, such as the U.S. Gymnastics team or NASA.
6. Enforce moderation of social media.
An hour of social media use per day is plenty for anyone. Apple devices allow you to set time limits on any linked devices, which can help avoid arguments.
7. Make a house rule: no phones at night.
The phone should be turned off at night and kept in a different room other than your child’s bedroom. Teens need their sleep and setting limits on screen use will help them make healthier choices.
Don’t be embarrassed to look over your child’s shoulder when they are on their devices. Ask them what they are watching. Get involved with the accounts they follow. Most importantly, ask your child how they feel about the content they are absorbing. You can say, “What do you think of that person’s outfit?” or “What do you think of that comment, would you say something like that?” Use these conversations as a springboard to understanding your child’s perspective and sharing your family values in a supportive and thoughtful way.