Navigating Social Media: A Guide for Parents & Caregivers

October 30, 2023

October marks Cybersecurity Awareness Month, a dedicated period to emphasize the critical significance of cybersecurity and online safety. Throughout this month, we will provide valuable Cyber Smart information tailored for parents and caregivers. Our goal is to empower you with the knowledge needed to safeguard your children’s online experiences effectively.

Social media plays a significant role in the lives of young people and while it offers numerous opportunities for connection and learning, it also comes with risks. As parents and caregivers, we can equip ourselves with knowledge and tools to help our children use social media safely and responsibly. 

In this blog post, we’ll explore insights shared by Dr. Janos Botschner, Principal of HumInsight, shedding light on the potential impact of social media on children’s well-being. Social media has many positive benefits as well as risks and we will discuss both in this blog as well as some practical strategies for parents to use to mitigate risks and support children to enjoy the benefits social media has to offer.

The Positive Aspects of Social Media

Social media is (or likely will be) a consistent and enjoyable part of your child’s life and there are many benefits to using these platforms.

Social media platforms create a virtual space where youth can connect with friends, family, and like-minded individuals from all over the world. This sense of digital community fosters a feeling of belonging and support, allowing them to find people who share their interests and experiences.

For example, social media can empower young people to raise their voices for causes they care about. Whether it’s advocating for environmental issues, promoting social justice or supporting charitable efforts, youth can amplify their message and connect with others to drive positive change.

Interacting on social media exposes young people to diverse viewpoints and experiences. Engaging with individuals from different backgrounds and cultures fosters empathy, open-mindedness and a broader understanding of the world.

For budding artists, writers, musicians and creators, social media serves as an excellent platform to showcase their talents and creativity. They can receive feedback and encouragement from a supportive audience, which can be immensely motivating.

Social media is also a powerful tool for learning and skill development. With a vast array of educational content available, from informative posts to online video tutorials and courses, young people can explore topics that pique their curiosity and expand their knowledge.

As young people transition into adulthood, social media can play a pivotal role in their professional lives. Through social media, they can network and connect with mentors, professionals and potential employers in their field of interest.

Finally, it’s important to highlight the sheer enjoyment of social media. Social media provides a space for lighthearted fun and entertainment. Engaging with funny videos, memes and creative challenges can help young people relax and find relief from stress.

Understanding and Mitigating Social Media Risks

In order to continue benefiting from social media, there are risks to be aware of and to mitigate. According to Dr. Botschner, social media risks are complex, involving multiple factors within the digital ecosystem. One of the top concerns is the passive consumption of content.

For example, active use of social media includes finding a cause or group to connect with that matches your values, such as a young person learning about and connecting with others to advocate for action on climate change. A passive example, on the other hand, is where a young person spends the bulk of their time online viewing other people’s personal content – content that may falsely represent how happy or fulfilled those individuals are. This can lead to negative social comparisons and feelings of inadequacy by comparing oneself to others. 

“This is exacerbated when young people overuse social media,” said Dr. Botschner, who likened it to eating potato chips, where you can enjoy them in moderation, but consuming multiple bags a day won’t be good for you. 

Moreover, the growth of misinformation, malinformation and disinformation poses a significant challenge if you don’t know how to identify them. Social media algorithms can lead people to a more extreme version of a post they’ve recently viewed, which can result in a different perspective of the world they didn’t start with–one that may not be grounded in fact. 

“Algorithms employed by social media platforms prioritize posts that evoke strong emotional responses, often enhancing online echo chambers that push the individual consuming these posts to more extreme views,” said Dr.  Botschner. “The primary purpose of these algorithms is to keep users glued to the platform, sometimes at the expense of their well-being and critical thinking. It’s important to understand this and to help children understand this as well.”

Compounding these risks are concerns around online bullying and exploitation, privacy concerns and other cyber safety risks young people may be exposed to. 

It’s not all negative though. Dr. Botschner highlights that social media can provide many benefits to young people in terms of connection, learning and entertainment. “Parents have an opportunity to educate their children about the negative impacts of social media in a way that empowers them and encourages them to use it responsibly. From there, they have the tools and confidence to access the benefits these platforms provide.”

Five Tips to Mitigate Social Media Risks

Parents and caregivers can play a vital role in guiding children through the complexities of social media. Here are five practical strategies to help mitigate the risks of social media while also fostering a positive digital experience.

1. Nurture personal values and foster offline connections

Encourage children to develop their own personal values and sense of purpose. By helping them understand their motivations for being online they’ll be better equipped to make conscious and positive decisions while using social media. This may also lead them to seek out opportunities outside of social media as well, including through “real world” connections. 

Help your children strengthen meaningful connections with family, peers and within their community. By nurturing these relationships, children can find the fulfilment they are seeking online through additional avenues, striking a balance between meaningful time spent online and off. Dr. Botschner notes that sports, hobbies and spending time in nature can provide positive sources of engagement and satisfaction for children.

2. Facilitate reflective conversations 

Encourage children to reflect on their thoughts and feelings about social media without judgement. By developing this skill, they can better understand the impact social media has on their well-being and respond thoughtfully instead of reacting impulsively.

Dr. Botschner recommends talking with your children about their experiences online. “Talk to your children about how they may be feeling after using social media. Did it make them sad seeing pictures and videos of their friends doing fun things without them? Alternatively, did it make them feel excited or inspire them in some way? Help your children understand these different experiences so they can use social media in more positive ways.” 

3. Provide age-appropriate online independence

Finding a balance between granting children independence and ensuring their online safety is a delicate task for parents and caregivers. It involves considerations around the child’s age and maturity level and actively engaging in conversations about online risks. 

Parents should empower their children to make informed decisions by listening and navigating the risks together. Work to build their capacity to grapple with complex situations and encourage critical thinking.

“It’s similar to teaching your children to cross the road, or to ride the bus by themselves,” said Dr. Botschner. “There are dangers but children can be taught to manage them.”

4. Model responsible behaviour
Lead by example and demonstrate responsible digital behaviour. By exhibiting healthy online habits, parents and caregivers can be valuable role models for children to emulate, showing them how to critically evaluate information, engage in positive discussions and manage their time online effectively.

“Depending on their child’s age, parents can share their own experiences online, including moments where social media made them feel good or bad about themselves in order to open up that dialogue,” said Dr. Botschner. 

5. Encourage empathy, kindness and self-compassion 

Promoting empathy and responsible digital behavior is essential for supporting your child’s well-being. Encourage them to connect with communities and individuals to cultivate empathy and understanding toward others. Additionally, teach your child to be mindful of their thoughts and feelings while using social media. Encourage them to counter their inner critic and practice self-compassion. By developing kindness towards themselves, they can extend empathy and kindness toward others in their online interactions.

Additionally, promote offline activities that encourage empathy, kindness and self-reflection. Encourage your child to participate in volunteer work, engage in hobbies or spend quality time with family and friends. These offline experiences provide valuable opportunities for personal growth and the development of social skills that will positively influence their online behaviour as well.

It’s An Ongoing Journey

Navigating social media can be both a challenge and an opportunity for parents and their children. By understanding the risks and opportunities, implementing practical strategies, and fostering open communication, we can empower children to use social media skillfully and responsibly. By cultivating their digital literacy and resilience, we can enable them to make informed choices, create meaningful connections and contribute positively to the online world. 

Remember, the journey of guiding children through social media is an ongoing process. The digital world will continue to evolve, and new social media will arise (take Threads for example). Stay engaged, adapt to the changing landscape and continue supporting your children as they grow up.

Learn more about Actua’s Cyber Smart Education project and preparing youth for a digital future.