Social Media Literacy Is the Key to Adolescent Online Safety, Not Bans

Panic over social media has reached a fever pitch. Diagnoses of mental illness among adolescents have been on the rise, and in May the U.S. surgeon general warned of “ample indicators” that social media may in part be to blame. In June, a psychologist called for a nationwide ban of cellphones in schools. By next March, kids under 18 in Utah will be allowed to use TikTok and Instagram only if they have explicit parental permission.

But perhaps banning social media — or heavily monitoring kids who use it, which is another common parental response — isn’t the most constructive solution to the problem. Perhaps, instead, we should focus more on helping kids learn how to safely navigate social media and manage online privacy and decision-making. This is the argument Devorah Heitner, an expert on children’s relationships with media and technology, makes in her new book, “Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World.”

The mother of a middle schooler, Dr. Heitner, who holds a doctorate in media, technology and society and is also the author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World,” knows how strongly parents want to protect their children from online threats. But the choices parents make in service of this goal often undermine the parent-child relationship and paradoxically put kids at more risk, she argues. Their fear-driven decisions “can get in the way of building trust and building skills,” she said, and provide parents with a false sense of security.

Here are some key takeaways from Dr. Heitner’s latest book and tips she shared for helping kids and teenagers safely navigate the online world.

Dr. Heitner does not advocate giving kids unlimited access to social media. “I don’t think anyone should spend 20 hours a day on TikTok,” she said. But the discourse around social media today is “very absolute and judgmental,” she added.

There are most likely lots of reasons for the rise in teen mental illness, she told The New York Times, and many don’t involve social media — such as climate change and school shootings, she said. “If your kid is distressed, it might not be because of Snapchat,” she explained.

Too much online restriction may not serve kids, either, she said. If we don’t give teenagers opportunities to engage with social media, she said, they won’t be able to learn how to thoughtfully navigate it. It’s smarter, she argued, to teach kids how to make good choices online and set safe boundaries.

Plus, restriction can have negative consequences: One study found that adolescents with limited access to social media had lower self-esteem than those who used it regularly, perhaps because being disconnected from friends incites its own psychological harms.

According to a 2021 international survey of more than 11,000 parents of kids between the age of 7 and 12, about half of parents use apps to monitor or control their children’s online activity. In some situations, parental monitoring is important, Dr. Heitner writes — such as when kids have been bullied online or are having suicidal thoughts.

But in general, “just because we can monitor our kids’ location or read their texts doesn’t mean we should,” Dr. Heitner said. In an 2018 study, kids said that parental monitoring apps negatively affected their relationship with their parents.

Surveilling kids’ whereabouts and online interactions catches their mistakes only after they’re made, Dr. Heitner writes. Instead of heavily monitoring online activity, parents ought to talk to their children about potentially risky choices such as sexting, and encourage them to think through the ramifications of what they share.

When parents ease up on surveillance, kids often make better choices, Dr. Heitner has found, based on conversations she has had with teenagers. Kids think: “I know you can surveil me, but I appreciate that you don’t, so I will honor your trust by not doing things we’ve agreed I’m not supposed to,” she writes. One study found that kids who aren’t heavily monitored take fewer online risks.

If parents are going to track their kids, Dr. Heitner recommended being candid about it — letting them know it’s happening and why. And parents might consider using only the surveillance they really need: Maybe they track their kids’ location because they walk home from school alone, but they don’t need to read their texts.

Even if parents regularly engage with their kids about being good digital citizens, their efforts may fall short if they are not doing it too. Parents shouldn’t be on their phones all the time and must be careful with how much they share about their children online, Dr. Heitner argues.

“The minute we get out our camera and document intimate family moments, we’re interrupting their intimacy and their privacy,” she said.

Dr. Heitner suggested that families set ground rules for what can and cannot be shared about the family and when. Making this a collective decision shows kids that this kind of information has value, she writes. Dr. Heitner has found that when parents start sharing less about their kids, children often become less inhibited, and the parent-child relationship strengthens.

“People come back to thank me,” she said, “and say that their kids’ trust in them increased dramatically.”

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