By Indika De Zoysa
With people being strictly confined to the comfort of their homes and compelled to rely on social media to keep up with the world outside, the outbreak of COVID-19 transformed social media usage. Over the past two-and-half-year period, social media usage has grown faster than it has in the four years leading to the pandemic.
For example, the Digital Global Overview report by Data Reportal disclosed that globally in 2021, half a billion new social media users were reported. Further, at present, social media users aged 13+ and above amount to 74.8% globally. With the surge of children turning to screens for entertainment, education and to connect with friends, there is growing concern among parents on the safety of their teens and tweens sharing videos, pictures, daily routines, live locations and much more online.
These concerns are justifiable as social media platforms can be a fertile ground for a good deal of trouble, given the free flow of sensitive data and information to an unfiltered audience. However, restricting your kids from keeping up with the digital world is not the answer. Parenting in a digital age requires innovative tools that act as guardrails, allowing your child to explore the digital world cautiously under your careful watch.
A closer look into some of the perils of the digital world
Social media’s impact on young people’s mental health is complex. Research has established that social media can directly affect a person’s self-esteem and thought process as some content disseminated can be sensitive and personal. This can have a far-reaching impact on young users who are still developing mentally and physically. For example, the Wall Street Journal reports that teenage girls across the globe experience severe physical tics due to the effects of consuming emotionally distressful social media content.
While the set-up of social media undoubtedly encourages content creation and fuels creativity, the pressure to create more and better content and increased fascination surrounding likes, shares and reactions can lead to the development of anxiety and depression. Cyberbullying, too, has experienced a surge since the pandemic. As detailed by security.org, 21% of 500 parents interviewed with kids aged 10-18 reported that their kids experienced cyberbullying.
Further incidents worldwide show that social media’s direct message and commenting features allow predators to hide behind false identities, making youngsters vulnerable to possible danger.
The good news is that social media platforms and creators have become creative in leveraging innovative technology to counter these risks.
Smart tools: A guide to smart parenting
TikTok, titled the most downloaded app in 2021, is taking active measures to ensure the safety of its young users. The app has proactively introduced new features to solidify the safety of children, allowing parents to customize safety settings while their children explore the digital platform safely.
The new features allow parents to determine children’s screen time using the parents’ personal accounts, minimizing room to compromise time spent on school work and extracurricular activities. Parents can also choose the content their children are exposed to and the search content of their children. Other features include managing the discoverability of your child’s account and deciding what audiences can like and comment on your child’s videos. TikTok also only allows direct messaging to registered account holders aged 16 and above and automatically turns off this feature for users between the ages of 13- and 15.
In addition to these safety features, parents can encourage their children to use their tablets and cell phones in a designated common area, making it easier for them to maintain a watchful eye. Introducing a time limit for internet use within the household, encouraging children to be outdoors and active, requesting access to their account credentials from younger users (this may not necessarily work with older teens, and in that case, an open conversation about risks in the digital world can help educate them) can also go a long way.
Educating ourselves on technology is key to being thoughtful parents in today’s world. Most social networking sites have an age minimum of 13 years and provide additional security settings for minors. Therefore educating yourself on privacy settings on these platforms and periodically reviewing your child’s privacy online will offer an extra layer of protection for your children in the digital world.
Happy parents, safe kids and a healthier digital world
Children are not things to be moulded but people to be unfolded. Therefore the true essence of being a parent is to give your child wings to soar and conquer the world. Unlike generations ago, children today can navigate the universe at the tip of their fingers. They carry the world in their pockets, discovering new potential with every click daily. Restricting them from this technology for fear of possible dangers and threats will only harm your child’s growth and adaptability to the ever-growing new world. Therefore, don’t slit their wings but let them fly and be the wind beneath, guiding and protecting them as they learn to soar higher and broader.
The digital world for minors is not one to fear but one to conquer with the right tools and supervision.
(The writer is the Vice president of Federation of Information Technology Industry Sri Lanka (FITIS) and Vice Chairman of ICT Industry Skills Council. He is also a council member of Computer society of Sri Lanka (CSSL)).