Becoming a Smarter Social Media Parent

Written by Jessie Curell

The Background

For several years now, Instagram and Facebook have been two of the most popular social media platforms in the world, and it’s little wonder. With the simplest of clicks, we can dive headfirst into a never-ending, always-fresh feed of images, videos, news and memes, giving us engaging, creative, visually appealing and (sometimes) informative content posted by friends, family, and literally billions of strangers around the globe. Travel videos from far-flung locations, helpful tips on home decor, lunch box ideas for the kids, baby pictures galore, educational content about literally anything you could ever want to know, and so … many … news stories.

When we post our own photos, status updates, or latest haircut pics, we love the dopamine shots that go directly to our brain when we get a like or a comment. Indeed, the world’s top neuroscientists have designed these platforms to keep us coming back for more. Akin to the draw of a casino slot machine, when we pull the app interface down and the feed is refreshed, we get a fresh hit of instant gratification each time. And most of us will go back dozens, if not hundreds, of times a day.

But why do these platforms want us constantly engaging with the app throughout the day? Simply put, it’s because every time an eyeball glances at an advertisement on Instagram or Facebook, the company earns ad revenue. In 2020, for example, Instagram generated an estimated $24 billion in this way. We also know that Instagram isn’t just for adults. In fact, 70% of its users are under 35 years old, and up until recently, Instagram Kids was slated for release last year.

The Problem

Though Instagram and Facebook seem totally commonplace and familiar to us now, they are actually brand new in the grand scheme of human history. We are living a social and cultural experiment.

As one might expect, not everything is going well. Some users have reported a direct relationship between increased levels of anxiety, depression and dissatisfaction with their own lives when and after using the apps. A recent Wall Street Journal piece from September 2021 reported that an internal Facebook researcher had found Instagram use was particularly damaging to teenage girls, describing how “32% of teenage girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”

But this report was not meant to be public, and Instagram had actually been planning for years to release IG Kids for those younger than 13. Why? As Priya Kumar, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland has described, an Instagram platform just for children would be a way for Facebook to hook users early and normalize the notion “that social connections exist to be monetized.

Luckily, Facebook is pausing the launch of IG Kids due to the uproar and a petition from thousands of parents and politicians.

The Solution

As parents, we need to know:

  • The apps and platforms that are out there targeting children;
  • Basic media literacy skills to understand why these apps are designed the way they are;
  • Basic digital literacy skills to implement the privacy settings and parental controls that can protect our kids as best as possible;
  • How to talk to our children about these apps before they start using them so that they can become smart digital citizens in control of their behaviour and emotions both on and offline.

Relatedly, we need to take control of our own behaviour while using our phones and social media platforms so that we can model responsible use and screen management for our children.

It is without a doubt that Instagram and Facebook have great potential for connecting with friends and family, sharing positivity and support and communicating educational content, but, as Common Sense Founder and CEO Jim Steyer has explained, “The only thing [Facebook] cares about is hooking kids when they are most vulnerable, keeping them on the platform and getting access to as much of their personal data as possible. This is their business model that generates billions of dollars, and they are not going to jeopardize that. This is why advocates, policymakers, and parents have to continue to keep the spotlight on Facebook and hold them accountable.”

Let’s educate ourselves and our children about social media best practices to minimize harm and maximize potential.

Jessie Curell

Jessie Curell is a Digital Media Literacy advocate and Founder of Hands on Media Education. She is dedicated to empowering educators, youth, parents, teams, and nations with the skills to thrive in the digital world. Jessie is a well respected and leading voice in media literacy in Canada and has been building media literacy strategies and programs for students, educational institutions, and leaders for over 15 years. Whether responding to a crisis related to safety and security or building preventative educational strategies for schools and organizations, she shares her knowledge, strategies and best practices to build resiliency through creativity.

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