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Balancing Act: Navigating a Realistic Approach to Safeguarding Kids on Social Media

Balancing Act: Navigating a Realistic Approach to Safeguarding Kids on Social Media

Ahmed Othman stands apart from the TikTok trend, deliberately steering clear of the platform. When he and his younger sister received iPhones in eighth and seventh grade respectively, their parents, both computer scientists, chose a different path. Eschewing social media, they opted for iMessage-only access, accompanied by a year-long crash course on the ins and outs of social media's impact on teen mental health.

They really tried to emphasize social media is a tool, but can also be like your worst enemy if you so make it,” reflects Othman, now 17. He attributes his healthy relationship with his phone to his parents' meticulous guidance, which led him to shun TikTok. "The algorithm is so potent that I feel like, you know, TikTok might not benefit me," he adds.

Hailing from Libya and residing in Massachusetts, Othman's stance contrasts with his peers, the majority of whom embrace TikTok, either with or without parental consent, as per the Pew Research Center. His parents' approach mirrors a growing consensus among experts: advocating for a middle-ground strategy that blends caution with education.

Rather than imposing an outright ban or granting unrestricted access, experts propose a gradual introduction to social media. This method equips children with the necessary tools and knowledge to navigate platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat, which have become ubiquitous in modern society.

“You cannot just expect that the kids will jump into the world of social media, learn how to swim on their own,” asserts Natalie Bazarova, a professor of communications and director of the Cornell Social Media Lab. “They need to have instruction. They need to have practice on how to behave on social media. They need to have understanding of risks and opportunities. And they also need to learn that in a way that is age appropriate.”

The adverse effects of social media on children have been extensively documented since Facebook's inception, with studies indicating a correlation between increased social media usage and higher rates of depression and anxiety, particularly among tweens and young teens. However, establishing a causal relationship remains a subject of ongoing research.

The digital landscape exposes many adolescents to content unsuitable for their age, ranging from pornography to violence. Additionally, they confront cyberbullying, sexual harassment, and unwelcome advances from both peers and adults. Due to their still-developing brains, teenagers are particularly susceptible to social comparisons, with even seemingly innocuous posts triggering negative spirals.

Recognizing the gravity of these issues, lawmakers have convened multiple congressional hearings, the most recent being in January, to address child online safety. However, the legislative landscape remains outdated, with the last federal law targeting online child protection passed in 1998, long before the inception of Facebook.

In May, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy sounded the alarm, cautioning against the lack of evidence proving social media's safety for kids. He urged policymakers to regulate social media's harms akin to other child-related products like car seats and medication. Murthy stressed that while parents play a crucial role, they cannot shoulder the entire burden alone.

Ahmed Othman's journey illustrates this complexity. Initially desiring unrestricted access, he now appreciates his parents' cautious approach. However, such strategies might not be feasible for every family. Many lack the expertise or time to provide comprehensive social media education.

Even with diligent oversight, pitfalls remain. Neveen Radwan, an IT professional, thought she had secured her children's online safety with stringent restrictions and oversight. Yet, her daughter's battle with anorexia, exacerbated by social media during the COVID-19 lockdowns, underscores the inherent risks.

Radwan's experience serves as a stark reminder: despite parents' best efforts, the allure and perils of social media persist, necessitating a multifaceted approach involving education, regulation, and parental guidance to safeguard adolescents in the digital age.

Driven by her passion for fitness, the teenage girl turned to Instagram for workout inspiration. However, what began as a quest for health quickly morphed into a nightmare. The platform's algorithm bombarded her with toxic challenges like "how to survive on 500 calories a day" and "fitting into a baby swing to stay skinny." Within a matter of months, she found herself hospitalized.

Neveen Radwan, her mother, now advocates against social media's detrimental effects on teens, having joined a lawsuit against Meta Platforms Inc., the parent company of Facebook and Instagram. Her daughter, having recovered, now attends college, a testament to resilience amidst adversity.

While parents play a crucial role, teenagers and experts alike emphasize the pivotal role of schools in fostering "digital citizenship." This encompassing term includes literacy in news media, cyberbullying awareness, social media balance, and even understanding artificial intelligence.

Bao Le, an 18-year-old freshman at Vanderbilt University, underscores the urgency: "We have sex education. We don’t have things about like online safety... And a lot of kids are dying of suicide, you know, text sextortion. So I think it’s really important the school also teaches this.”

Despite the evident need, digital literacy and online safety programs remain scarce in schools. Teachers grapple with limited resources and mounting pressures, stretching their ability to deliver conventional curriculum, let alone address digital citizenship adequately.

Compounding the issue, schools often inadvertently promote social media use for extracurricular engagement, exacerbating the challenges faced by educators. Attempts to ban phones prove futile, as resourceful teens circumvent restrictions through various means, from submitting counterfeit devices to accessing social media via alternate platforms or burner phones.

The battle against the adverse effects of social media demands a multifaceted approach, with collaboration among parents, educators, and policymakers essential to equip adolescents with the tools needed to navigate the digital landscape safely.

Larissa May reflects on her journey and the realization that she was not alone in her struggles with social media. This insight led her to establish HalfTheStory, a platform dedicated to helping young people cultivate healthier relationships with technology, starting as early as middle school, even before some children have access to devices.

Contrary to advocating for abstinence from social media, May emphasizes the importance of setting boundaries, a sentiment echoed by the teens she works with. "What I learn from every single one of our teens is that they wish their parents had more boundaries for them," she explains. However, she acknowledges the fear parents may harbor, given the potential for conflict and exposure to harmful content associated with digital devices.

Navigating the complexities of social media requires a nuanced approach that balances access with boundaries. By empowering parents and youth alike to establish healthy boundaries and foster open communication, communities can mitigate the risks associated with technology while harnessing its benefits.

In conclusion, the narrative surrounding social media's impact on youth underscores the need for a multifaceted approach. Larissa May's journey, alongside the experiences of countless others, highlights the complexities and challenges inherent in navigating the digital landscape. From the detrimental effects on mental health to the potential for exposure to harmful content, the stakes are high.

However, amidst these challenges, there exists a glimmer of hope. Initiatives like HalfTheStory and organizations such as Common Sense Media offer valuable resources and support networks to empower youth and parents alike. By fostering awareness, promoting healthy boundaries, and fostering open dialogue, communities can equip the next generation with the tools and resilience needed to thrive in an increasingly digital world.

Ultimately, the journey towards cultivating positive relationships with technology begins with a recognition of shared struggles and a commitment to collective action. Through collaboration and advocacy, we can pave the way for a future where youth can navigate the digital landscape with confidence, resilience, and a sense of empowerment.