In September, The Wall Street Journal published “The Facebook Files,” a scathing investigative report into the social media conglomerate. The series cited internal memos that appear to demonstrate Facebook’s awareness of practices that negatively affect its users and the media environment as a whole.
While the claims are wide-ranging, one stands out as particularly damning: according to the Journal, social media sites have a detrimental effect on teens’ mental health, with Facebook-owned Instagram being particularly problematic for young girls. The Journal also claims that Facebook knows about this issue but has done little about it — and perhaps has even been complicit in making things worse.
While Facebook has countered these claims, it’s undeniable that the Journal series gives parents yet another reason to be concerned about social media. And while these sites have benefits, including helping teens connect to each other and express themselves, parents are right to question whether the negatives outweigh the positives.
The truth is, there are no easy answers. Saying “no” to teen use of social media is difficult and can strain relationships. Saying “yes’ demands ongoing diligence and exposes teens to several risks. What, then, should families be thinking about when it comes to access to social media?
● Consider withholding access to social media past the minimum age. Most social media sites require that users be 13 or older, which is a byproduct of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Still, families should make their own decisions about when social media use is appropriate — if at all — and on which platforms. It is not a child’s “right” to use social media — even if their friends’ parents acquiesce. The earlier a child is introduced to social media, the more risks you’re accepting.
● Talk about the risks. If they use social media, kids will encounter challenges and inevitably be exposed to content and connections that can do harm — some they’re well aware of, and some they won’t see coming. Regardless of whether they opt in, kids will have the opportunity to influence their friends and be influenced by them. Parents and guardians should take the lead in having honest conversations about what they might encounter and how teens should respond. Listening is critical, as is ongoing conversation about what teens are experiencing day to day.
● “Friend” them on any sites they use. If your teen is on a social media site, you should be, too. You don’t have to be active in terms of posting, but being on the site will give you more knowledge of what your teen may be seeing and sharing. This will likely require some negotiation with your teen since they likely won’t want you to be connected. Some may even try to post content without your knowledge, which means you should...
● Make password sharing a condition of use. To encourage teens to think twice about how they use social media sites, parents and guardians should have all logins and passwords. Just knowing that you have access to their accounts might make them think twice about how they use social media — a filter even some adults would benefit from.
● Limit the use of smartphones to waking hours. Phones in the bedroom are a bad idea for everyone, regardless of age, but it’s an especially bad habit for teens to adopt.
Phone use and exposure to apps immediately before bed inhibits sleep and isolated phone use can increase feelings of loneliness and increased exposure to inappropriate content and contact.
The Wall Street Journal’s investigation provides yet more proof that Facebook’s motivation to maximize profit and keep young users engaged often comes at a tremendously high cost. For parents, this requires some tough decisions about whether social media use should be allowed, and on what terms. If you’re afraid of alienating your teen or eroding trust, ask yourself this: is the short-term benefit of giving them what they want worth the long-term risks you’re inviting?
What the record appears to show, once again, is that the answer is no.