My new recommendation regarding the internet: trust but verify

In this divided political age, there’s little Republicans and Democrats agree on. But one area of shared concern is the impact of social media on young people. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s congressional testimony revealed a number of concerns, including that Facebook’s algorithms spread misinformation, that the company has done little to take that on, and that Facebook is aware that its platform contributes to human exploitation. However, one of the biggest headlines was how harmful Facebook and Instagram are for children and teenagers, particularly teenage girls. Haugen cited Facebook’s own internal research that showed that “13.5% of teen girls on Instagram say the platform makes thoughts of ‘suicide and self injury’ worse” and 17% say the platform, which Facebook owns, “makes ‘eating issues’ such as anorexia worse.” Users of social media sites like Facebook and Instagram are supposed to be 13 years old, but 40 percent of 9- to 12-year-olds visit Instagram every day. It’s not just Facebook. Although YouTube has a special channel set up for young people, a New York Times article notes that advertisements aimed at adults show up on 95 percent of kids videos, and about one fifth of those advertisements are completely inappropriate for children. Why is this a big deal? According to the same reporting, 78 percent of kids aged 9-12 go to YouTube every day! 

I know how hard it is for parents to navigate this terrain. One source for help is this opinion video by the New York Times. It goes into that research and talks about the weaknesses of American privacy laws regarding the internet and children. The fear of missing out, or FOMO, on the part of our kids is intense, and it is hard to exclude your child from a key way that youth communicate today. When children are on the internet unsupervised, there is a very real possibility that they will come into contact with inappropriate content, misinformation, and the potential for someone to exploit them. I think it is important to educate your children on how the internet works. Teach them about how these sites are made to be addictive. Also, it may be helpful to educate them about how every click is monetized, and how one’s online behavior is not private, but is being sold.

When parents ask me about when children should get a smartphone, my typical response is Grade 7 or Grade 8. That’s what my wife and I did with our kids. I now wonder if it is too soon, given the research and Haugen’s information. When my wife and I went through this with our kids, we spent a lot of time talking about how to use the internet on their phones and what not to do. Phones and laptops weren’t allowed in the bedroom at night. We reviewed their texts periodically. Of course, I had hundreds of cautionary tales of bad internet use by students over my career at the ready to demonstrate how one bad post or text could lead to significant trouble. 

At some point, we have to trust our kids to navigate an online world that is as dangerous, if not more, as the real world. I am now also recommending a hybrid approach of “trust, but verify.” Please watch this 10-minute video and have a conversation with your children, particularly those in the Lower and Middle school. While that YouTube video might allow for a moment of calm in your house or in the car, it could be taking your child down a dangerous rabbit hole.