Protecting Your Kids From Social Media Harm – A Guide For Parents
Image by Sam Thomas, Douglas Sacha
In the opening scene of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice is bored and wondering whether she can be bothered to make a daisy chain, when suddenly she sees a white rabbit with pink eyes, a waistcoat and a watch. ‘Burning with curiosity’, Alice follows the rabbit down the hole, ‘never once considering how in the world she was going to get out again.’
In the 21st Century, rabbit-holes abound, but they are rabbit-holes of a different kind. We are pulled into these rabbit holes through our screens, beneath which lie hypnotic algorithmic powers from behaviour modification empires (as Jaron Lanier calls them) way more sinister and subtle than the Queen of Hearts. It is ‘off with our heads’ – we are decapitated without realising it into a bottomless virtual reality.
I’m thinking about rabbit-holes because of Molly Russell, the 14-year old girl who took her own life after falling down a rabbit hole that her father Ian described as a ‘demented trail of life-sucking content.’
I’m also thinking of rabbit-holes because of something that happened to me last week.
I got commissioned to write a piece for a very well respected, very established broadsheet in the UK. The piece was following on from the Molly Russell case, an expert-led piece giving much needed guidance to parents worried about their kids and social media. I wrote the piece, and it was due to be published last Sunday.
But at the last hour, I got an email explaining that this particular, well respected, well established newspaper had decided to go instead with as celebrity interview, where said celebrity talked about their kids social media use.
There is a dark irony here.
Molly Russell used an anonymous Twitter account to ask for help from celebrities and influencers who she had seen posting about their own experience of depression. They never responded. Her father, Ian Russell, described it as “calling out into a void”.
If our established broadsheets are preferring celebrity interviews over expert opinion, then it is no wonder these institutions are losing our trust. These institutions too are being sucked into the same rabbit holes.
In this post-truth world, our children increasingly don’t know who to trust. And yet, having one safe person to trust is necessary for our children’s mental health. Trust is required to say YES to life. Trust grows in the fertile soil of honest, authentic relationship. These relationships are not the relationships we imagine we have with celebrities or influencers.
Please take a moment to read my original article below – a guide for parents on keeping their kids safe on social media – and please share it. I would really like this article to reach parents who might be looking for help on this topic, and who don’t want to fall down any more rabbit-holes filled with celebrities and influencers and a fantasy of trust.
Protecting Your Kids From Social Media Harm – A Guide For Parents
In most ways, the internet is a powerful, wonderful tool, but, as the tragic case of Molly Russell showed, it poses a real and significant harm to our kids, especially in the murky algorithm-driven world of social media. We are getting towards the stage where our children are not necessarily more safe in their bedrooms than out on the streets. As recent history proves, we can’t wait for regulation or the social media giants to change their game. We need to take matters into our own hands. Here’s what parents can do.
Your teenager still needs you
When our kids become teenagers, they start to look, feel and smell different, like mini adults. No longer cherubim, our relationship with them has to adapt. But, beneath their sometimes strident quest for independence, it’s important to remember that they still really need us.
Adolescence is a critical and vulnerable time of development. Most mental health problems begin in adolescence. Brains are particularly plastic during this period, which means they are easily shaped by the environment they are plugged into. The good news is that this is also a critical period when we can embed good mental health in our children.
We need to make sure that we as parents play a bigger role in our child’s life than social media does. We need to hold onto our relationship with our kids. Not coddling them, but listening to them, loving and respecting them, with very clear, negotiated boundaries. In my experience, young people are very able to reflect wisely on their social media use when they don’t feel they are being judged.
Get across the tech
Most devices and browsers have built-in parental controls, which you can use to restrict the access your children have to harmful content. There are also parental control settings and accessories for your wi-fi router, allowing you to set specific controls for specific devices in the house, and logging a detailed history of what websites your children have visited. With social media, it gets a bit trickier. There are some apps that will allow you to monitor your child’s social media use, but most parents I speak to feel like this is too much of an invasion of privacy. Some parents have access to their child’s social media password and have an agreement to check their account if they are ever concerned about them. Whatever you choose, it’s important to remember that these technical solutions are never 100% effective, and your relationship with your child is the most effective tool you have.
Bedrooms are for sleeping
I used to run a therapeutic school in London for teenagers with complex trauma. Anita was 15 years old, feisty as hell, and the first to have a smart phone — a Blackberry. She told me she had been sleeping with her Blackberry under her pillow, and hadn’t slept a wink last night because it was pinging through the night with messages about a “beef” between two of her friends. The drama of the day continued to sear into her nervous system through the night.
If we want our children to have good mental health, they need good sleep. Whether they are 10 or 16, they can’t have devices in their bedroom when they sleep. It’s that black and white. For the sake of our children’s minds, this needs to be a hard and fast rule. I know it’s not always easy to establish these boundaries. But it’s important. You might let your 15-year-old have a small glass of wine at the dinner table, but you wouldn’t let them take a bottle of wine into their bedroom, especially if that bottle of wine is being filled up every night with toxic content we have absolutely no control over. I know many families who have a device box. They set a certain time of evening after which devices need to be in the box. Yes, this may need to apply to us grown-ups too. Let’s face it, we are all addicted to our devices. Figure out your own way to do this, but bedrooms are for sleeping, sleep is critical for mental health, and you are still their parents.
Unplug from the ‘digital nervous system’
In this hyperconnected age, our nervous systems are increasingly connected to the nervous systems of the eight billion people on our planet. The algorithm-charged emotions that rage through the internet trigger our sympathetic nervous system. If a child is looking frequently at this kind of content their nervous system is getting a steady stream of cues that they are unsafe.
Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to this. They need safe spaces away from devices to process these emotional storms. Even just having a family mealtime without devices is a step in the right direction. Ideally, we need to spend a little 1-1 time with them each day, offering them that space to digest. Even if we don’t talk, just by being there with them, going for a walk, or doing some art or activity together, we are staying connected to them.
It’s important we have space to process our own emotions too, of course. Like the red-faced, stressed-out teacher who shouts at the children in his class to ‘calm down!’, it doesn’t work when we try to impose on our children something we haven’t already accessed within ourselves. It can help to ask yourself what emotions were not acceptable in your family of origin? Can you give yourself just a little bit of extra permission for that feeling to be there? It can help to find that feeling in the body, put a nurturing hand on it, and let the feeling know it’s ok for it to be there.
You Are The Captain Of Their Ship
A mum I worked with found out her daughter had been self-harming, disclosed in a fraught, emotional moment. The mum had also self-harmed at a similar age (I often find these patterns repeat in families). Since the disclosure, the mum had been frantically looking for help from organisations, therapists, online forums. The mum soon discovered that her daughter had also been frantically looking for help on social media, forums, influencers, websites. Two people in the same house, desperately seeking help on the internet for the same problem, in silos.
I helped the mum to remember she was probably the best placed person to help her daughter. Not only does she know her daughter better than any professional ever will, but, in this case, she also had her own lived experience of what her daughter was going through. Trauma expert Bessel Ven Der Kolk says that “the parent-child connection is the most powerful mental health intervention known to mankind.” You might not feel equipped to deal with whatever challenges your teenager is bringing. And sometimes professional help is necessary. But you need to be the captain of their ship, their safe space guiding them through the emotional storms of 21st century life.
There is a dangerous myth that says if we talk about suicide we make it more real, more likely to happen. The research shows the opposite to be true, and confirms my clinical experience. As parenting consultant Roma Norriss says: “It’s tricky talking about suicide, but it’s better than not talking about it.”
The difficult and sad truth is that suicides are increasing amongst our young people, especially our girls. Although the causes of suicide are complex, the clients I have worked with who thought about or attempted suicide have said it felt like the only way to stop overwhelming feelings. What these clients needed was to feel that they were not alone in their feelings, to have a sense that their feelings were bearable. If we can guide our teenage children through their emotional states, even the most intense ones, we teach them that emotions are bearable and temporary.
I once worked with a 14-year old boy called Ainsley who had given up on life after reading online about the climate crisis. All the adults around him seemed ‘fake, with big fake smiles, acting as though everything was OK’ while Ainsley could see the world was in a hopeless mess. A huge part of me wanted to give him hope, to tell him, ‘It will all be OK’. I suggested he channel his despair into joining a movement, Extinction Rebellion or the Youth Climate Protests. My ideas were instantly rebuffed as palliative care. ‘It’s too late,’ he said. ‘I’ve read the science. Nothing we do now can make any difference.’ After a few jarring sessions where each of my attempts to give him hope fell flat, I realised I had to do something different. I had to let go, completely let go, of my desire to make Ainsley feel better. I had to connect with a place inside of myself that also felt hopeless about the future. This is not an easy space for any of us to inhabit. But, once I’d attuned to Ainsley’s nihilism, once I’d let his despair become a possible truth in my heart, things began to shift. He opened up to me. He found a little hope.
We all experience dark moments in our lives. What helps us to get through is when people can genuinely validate our emotional experience. It helps if this is in person. Online connections can help. But humans are designed to need face-to-face, body-to-body contact and community to help them through tough times.
See if you can find a way to shine a light onto their experience without minimising or denying it. Don’t wait for them to come to you. You can say something like: “It seems like things are really tough for you right now. I’m here to listen. I love you and I care what happens to you.” If you are worried that they are finding harmful content online, you have to draw a line. Of course, get professional help if you see signs of self-harm or suicidal thinking. Papyrus are a great charity in the UK working to prevent suicide in our children.
Even if social media companies curb their demented trails of life-sucking content, new technologies will emerge with new harms, like the meteoric rise of vaping after smoking lost its cool. This is a time to remember that parents matter. Our kids, even those grumpy teenage ones, still really need us.