This month Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before U.S. lawmakers about the dangers Facebook and its subsidiaries pose to children and teens. Of particular concern is the toxic mental health impact of the social media giant’s Instagram platform, which makes body-image issues worse for one in three teenage girls, according to the company’s own internal research.
The Senate hearing launches a new crisis for Facebook as lawmakers from both parties discuss regulatory efforts to tamp down on what they say is a plethora of societal problems prompted by the company. Repeatedly, senators compared the social media giant to Big Tobacco–addictive, profitable, but ultimately bad.
In our work at the Reboot Foundation we continually study the cross section of critical thinking and social media. Our research mirrors what was said during the Senate hearing: social media platforms lead to anxiety, depression, and other ills in users. Reboot’s findings point to one conclusion: like tobacco, social media should be treated like a public health crisis.
Yet the alarm bells ringing in response to last week’s hearings may not register for parents of teens and tweens. After all, fewer than 4 percent of Facebook users are under the age of 18. Young people are much more likely to be on TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, Discord, Twitch, and an abundance of others – platforms that so far have largely escaped public backlash.
Just because most young people are not using Facebook does not mean their parents should breathe easy. In fact, many platforms popular with teens are rife with their own dangers that require close parental monitoring.
TikTok is a known hotbed of COVID and vaccine misinformation. A July study of 124 TikTok videos that contained COVID-19 misinformation found that they had been viewed more than 20 million times by users. YouTube has been called “The Great Radicalizer” because its algorithms continually push users toward more and more incendiary content. Last spring, the chat-platform Discord made headlines when it announced it banned more than 2,000 extremist communities from its services – double the number that were operating on the platform in 2020.
Clearly, parents need to be hyper vigilant no matter the platform. So where to start?
An immediate step parents can take is a so-called “digital detox.” The whole family could turn off their screens, put down their phones, and step away from the online world for a weekend, or longer. For too many, it’s hard to step away from the screen, even when it’s bad for us.
When Reboot surveyed American social media users last year, more than half acknowledged that their social media use intensified their feelings of anxiety, depression or loneliness. They also reported that it contributed to their low self-esteem and made it harder for them to concentrate. Yet despite recognizing the negative impact social media had on their psyches, only about a third said they took steps to limit their social media use.
Teens, in particular, need the guidance, encouragement and, yes, even the discipline of a parent, to stop scrolling, even for a few days during a digital detox. But the results can be invigorating. One writer took a two-week detox recently, and called it “one of the best things I ever did for myself.”
Beyond putting limits on screen time, one of the most important steps parents can take is to foster critical thinking skills in their children. This is crucial to helping prepare and protect them from the harmful aspects of social media, such as the misinformation and disinformation that is rampant online. Parents should strive to inspire critical thinking from an early age and consistently encourage the development of these skills in their kids.
The Reboot Foundation offers several resources to facilitate critical thinking development in children, including a free Parent’s Guide with age-group specific research and tips, and series of simple tip sheets that are free to download.
For instance, among 5 to 7 year olds, helping children manage their emotions so that they can think calmly and objectively, and craft thoughtful arguments, helps establish a strong foundation for better managing social media later. By the time children reach the tween years, around 10 to 12 years old, puberty begins to set in and that can exacerbate their emotions–making it more difficult for them to manage.
Another primary challenge for pre-teens is to resist the temptations of their impulses and their need for instant gratification. Social media preys on this weakness with algorithms that pump a steady stream of emotionally-charged content to our devices. One expert called it “behavioural cocaine.”
Being able to control and distance ourselves from our own emotions is indispensable to critical thinking and reasoning at any age, but especially so with these young people. It too, is an invaluable skill for managing social media usage.
This is also the time for young people to practice humility (admitting you don’t know everything and could be wrong), to show confidence (being strong enough to ask tough questions and challenge authority when appropriate), and to conduct analysis (examining arguments on their merits, instead of judging the person making them). These three traits are central to being a successful critical thinker, and it’s never too early for parents to encourage their development.
So as U.S. lawmakers continue to grill Facebook and Instagram executives–even as many other social media platforms avoid the crosshairs–parents must take seriously their role in ensuring that their children are equipped with the skills and capabilities to successfully navigate the ever-changing world of social media. It begins at home, and it’s never too early to start. No matter the platform.
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