There is a frightening 21st-century predator lurking in the shadows for our children.
And it comes in the form of unmonitored access to social media and Internet content.
If you’re in your teens or twenties, you might be thinking, “Yeah, yeah – adults have been going on and on about the dangers of the Internet for years – it’s not really all that bad!” I remember thinking the same thing back when the world of social media first began, and I heard all the warnings about predators and strangers online.
But I was 18 when I got my first social media account (back when MySpace was the popular thing – yes, I get how old I am). And I had enough smarts to not add random people that I didn’t even know. Besides which, at the time, there were really only two social media platforms – MySpace and Facebook – and the content that they included was nowhere near as complex and varied as what is on current social media sites (or at least the content that I saw).
Now, the social media sites continually multiply, and involve access to content posted not just by “friends,” but by a myriad of users, some celebrities, some just random people who started getting loads of followers. And the content is becoming increasingly disturbing.
Back in May, Snapchat added a feature called “Cosmo After Dark” (which it apparently canceled shortly after), which was a channel on its “Discover” section and was labeled by some as pornographic. As I was searching for the article that I originally read about this feature, I came across a Snopes article on it with the subtitle, “‘Cosmo After Dark’ will feature content about sex, but this Snapchat channel isn’t porn and will only be available to viewers 18 and older.” The Snopes article included screenshots from the channel and argued it wasn’t specifically porn because there were hearts covering the most explicit parts of the pictures [and yet, I could barely glance at it without being horrified at what else was being shown].
On so many levels this makes me angry. First of all, a little heart in the middle of a picture doesn’t change the fact that the intention was pornographic – and regardless of the terminology, it was still a channel dedicated to sex. It even described itself as X-rated.
Second of all, how nice of you to limit the age to 18. That will stop so many children from lying about their age and accessing it anyway. Or accessing it through a parent’s or older sibling’s device. You cannot be naïve about how many underage children are on Snapchat and how easily content like this is obtained once they are a part of the app. Thankfully, it appears to have been removed from the site, but my guess is that it won’t be long before something similar is introduced – on that site or others.
Case in point – the amount of disturbing material on the site Musical.ly. Never heard of Musical.ly? Neither had I, until two years ago when that’s all my 5th-graders were talking about. Apparently, it was an app to upload your own lip-sync music videos. Sounded pretty harmless – until I read this article about it back in March and wanted to vomit based on what it said.
Yes, it includes live-streaming porn. It also includes self-harm videos (with how-tos) as well as pro-anorexia videos and popular hashtags such as #selfhate, #selfharm, #cutting, and #suicide.
You think this is extreme and that children aren’t actually encountering these things when they’re on these sites? You’re wrong. I have had firsthand experience with children who are on this site and post self-harm and suicidal videos on it. Children who are ten and eleven.
And while we’re on the topic of suicide, we can’t forget the oh-so-influential Netflix series called “13 Reasons Why” – which child psychiatrist Sansea L. Jacobson says in this article, “romanticizes suicide.” I haven’t seen the series, and after all I’ve heard about it, I don’t intend to watch it. In brief, teenager Hannah Baker commits suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes meant for different people whom she blames for her suicide – which the show displays in graphic detail.
It takes the delicate topic of suicide – one which I do think needs to be discussed with our teens and pre-teens – and provides no real answers, no real hope, and gives the false illusion that one can get “revenge” through suicide by putting guilt on those who have wronged you in your life.
Is there reason to be concerned about all of this? And all that I didn’t touch on [don’t even get me started on the insane amount of YouTube videos kids watch, including the mindless – and sometimes offensive – Jake and Logan Paul]? Is it actually affecting our kids that much?
The answer is a resounding yes. I know, because the majority of what I know about these social media sites, YouTube videos and video games, I know from what my 5th-graders tell me. They are experiencing it in real time, and I see the effects of it on a daily basis. They spend their weekends (and weeknights – until midnight) playing video games. They spend their time in class drawing disturbing images from things like Five Nights at Freddy’s. And many of them wrote their end-of-the-year papers on cyberbullying, citing firsthand experience.
I know I’m not a parent. And I know that being a parent is difficult – you can’t censor everything your child sees. But parents, I am pleading with you – be more informed about what is out there and how it affects your kids. Have honest conversations with them about these popular games, social media sites, and videos. And consider the fact that maybe they really don’t need a phone until they’re older – at least not a smartphone.
Because as Anastasia Basil said in her article about Musical.ly, “Tweens and teens have an underdeveloped frontal cortex. They’re impulsive and self-centered. They make terrible decisions and they can be meaner than a bull shark. Also, their conflict-management skills are lousy.”
The simple truth of the matter is that even the kids who act mature are still kids. Their brains are still developing. They don’t have the skills to navigate the dangerous waters of social media (some adults still don’t have those skills!). So why are we simply giving into their requests and handing them access to all this unending stream of potentially harmful content?
Nine- to twelve-year olds really don’t need to be taking duck-lips selfies and posting them on Instagram every single day. Instead they really need to be allowed to still be kids – riding bikes outside till the sun goes down, running through sprinklers, using their imagination to come up with their own games, and reading good books that inspire them to grow up to be world-changing adults.
Right now, we’re just encouraging them to be self-centered kids who grow up to be self-centered adults – who might think it’s perfectly acceptable to access porn and harm themselves.
Have those tough conversations with your kids. Be as honest as they are developmentally ready for. And put limitations on what they can access. Get to know their friends and what their friends are looking at online. Be involved in their lives, care about their problems, and provide healthy alternatives to mindless Internet scrolling.
It’s not called being overprotective. It’s called being a parent.
If we were more influential in our kids’ lives than the Internet, just think what might happen. A little bit of world change, that’s what might happen.
Disclaimer: I do not endorse any of the authors cited in my post – much of what they said was opinion, and I respect your right to disagree with their opinions. I also have not had firsthand experience with Snapchat, Muscial.ly, or “13 Reasons Why,” so if any of the information I said about it was false, please feel free to let me know in a friendly, private manner.