If you’ve spent any time online in the past few months, you have likely already heard the buzz around The Social Dilemma – a 2020 documentary that profiles experts in the field of technology and warns of the dangerous impacts that social media can have on our minds and society at large. The film highlights how social media can have an insidious influence on so many different aspects of human life, from things like our purchasing behaviours, to our ideas about beauty standards, body image, and even our neurological pleasure pathways and global politics.
If you have watched the film, it may have motivated you to reconsider your own approach to social media and how your attitude towards it may influence yourself and the people around you. If you have very young children, you may be thinking twice about if or when you might introduce them to technology, and what kind of rules or limits might need to be put in place. If you have older children who may already be on social media, you may be wondering what kind of changes you can make in order to keep them safe.
If social media is already a part of yours and your family’s lives, it may not always be realistic – or even ideal – to try and backtrack by implementing a strict ban. Especially now in the age of COVID-19, when opportunities for in-person socialization have never been fewer and farther between, social media is a great way for children and adults alike to stay connected with their loved ones and peers. For young people, social media is also a major vehicle for cultural exchange, and giving it up completely might incite a fear of isolation or ostracization. The fact is, even the experts interviewed in the film admit that as time goes on, technology will only become more and more integrated into our lives. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t major issues related to how we currently engage with technology, but it does mean that – one way or another – we will need to learn how to coexist with technology while still being able to keep ourselves and our children safe.
At the end of the film, tech experts were asked what kinds of things families can do to protect against the dangers of social media. Across the board, they all have limits in place around social media for their kids and for themselves. While the different approaches varied, they recommend parents start by implementing these three, research-backed rules:
- No devices in the bedroom after a certain time
- No social media until (at least) high school
- Create a collaborative screen-time budget with your kids and stick to it
These rules are simple enough that, ideally, they can be implemented without causing too much disruption. But, what more can we do? How can we talk to our kids about social media and all of the dangers that come with it in a way that allows them to stay safe and informed but doesn’t totally freak them out?
Talk to your kids about the good, the bad, and the ugly
If your kids are old enough, it’s not a bad idea to watch the film with them: pause to allow them to ask questions or to gauge their opinions on certain things. You’ll probably have to pre-watch the film yourself to decide whether or not it will be appropriate for your child in particular – the doom and gloom of it all can feel overwhelming even for adults. Whether or not you choose to use The Social Dilemma as an educational tool, it’s important that you do your own research and discuss the dangers of social media with your kids. While there are many causes for concern associated with social media use, taking a black-and-white approach in villainizing all social media and technology will likely not be effective. You have every right to have your concerns, but keep in mind how social media is also a vital source of information, entertainment, and connection for young people – and that not acknowledging the positive aspects of social media and technology will only communicate to your child that you don’t truly understand.
Chances are, your children have grown up with technology in ways you simply can’t relate to, and this may lead your kids to believe that your worries come from a place of ignorance rather than genuine concern. An analogy might be helpful in explaining how social media is such a double-edged sword: when the car was invented, it changed society and how people get around, and this advancement continues to be an invaluable tool for billions of people – what would happen if we didn’t have ambulances that transported the ill or injured to the hospital in just a few minutes? However, what we didn’t understand back then was how our ongoing dependence on fossil fuels would impact our environment. Now that we know, it’s not that everyone is going to immediately stop using cars, but we are urged to think more critically about how we do use transportation and how we can get around more responsibly (be it by choosing hybrid/electric cars, carpooling, using public transportation, voting for political parties that are motivated to address the climate emergency and invest in cycling lanes, etc.).
Stay in the know
If your children do use social media, it’s important that you stay in the loop. Not only will this put you in the best position to keep your kids safe, but it also communicates to your child that they are a priority and that you care about what kinds of things are important to them. Spend time listening and really getting to know your child and their interests. Pay attention to what kinds of platforms they use, who they follow, and who follows them. You can keep a close eye without policing their every digital move – but the line between staying safely informed and invading their privacy can be a fine one, and striking this balance will look different for each family.
Make yourself their go-to person
Building a strong, trusting relationship with your child that emphasizes open and loving communication will ensure that you become their go-to person. Make sure that they know that they can come to you with absolutely any topic or concern, and that even if they’re afraid they’ve done something wrong, you are always a safe person to talk to and that you will love them unconditionally. Even if something your child has done shocks you, always centre unconditional love and nurturance in your approach. Reframe the mistake as a learning opportunity, work together to come up with a solution for moving forward, and never resort to shaming or guilt-tripping. The best way to keep your child safe is to be in the know, and the last thing you want is their hiding things from you out of fear. When they ask you questions, validate them by thanking them for asking and letting them know how glad you are that they felt comfortable coming to you for answers. This demonstrates that you are the right person to ask and will encourage them to come to you with more important questions in the future.
Teach media literacy
Even if you have screen time rules in place, or perhaps your children are not yet even allowed to interact with social media or technology, encountering advertisements and other different media forms are inevitable in our society. How many times have you caught yourself mindlessly reading magazine covers while waiting in the grocery store checkout line? Even just walking around the neighbourhood, you will pass advertisements on bus stops, storefronts and billboards. We are so constantly surrounded by media that even as adults we are often not consciously aware that we’re consuming it. This is why it is incredibly important to teach your kids about media literacy as soon as you can, ideally before they even begin actively engaging with media and technology. Starting around grade 4, many school curriculums begin teaching media literacy, but this doesn’t mean you can’t start the conversation with your own kids even earlier.
For example, if you give them a snack that has a photo of the food on the packaging, compare the real snack to the photo: does the photo look more delicious than the real deal? Why might that be? You have to lead by example, too: it’s not just young children who can fall prey to the persuasive and sometimes-deceitful nature of media – if you’re watching the news or reading an online article, remember to take everything with a grain of salt – show your kids that we don’t have to take everything at face value and underline the importance of critical thinking.
The bottom line: technology and social media are incredibly powerful tools that have the potential to be both incredibly helpful and harmful. While taking in all of this information can certainly feel overwhelming at times, the more informed we are, the better positioned we are to keep ourselves and our families safe.