April Avey Trabucco
The Dark Side of Social Media — What Parents Need to Know
As part of Raising Resilience's series on Sexual Assault Awareness, we asked former Raising Resilience board member, Olivia Joy Salamon, MA, LMHC, what she thinks parents need to know about kids and social media. She shared the following article with us from her perspective as a Child/Teen and Family Therapist on Bainbridge Island.
Parenting during the pre-teen and teen years is a challenging time and the age of technology presents a rapidly changing landscape that is hard to keep up with.
Knowledge is Power
Teens these days often know more than parents do about the intricacies of social media and smartphones. This can cause parents to lose their position of authority, which can inhibit their ability to adequately guide their teen’s life. Having access to a smartphone or computer, out of their parent’s line of sight, isn’t necessarily good for them. They can easily find mischief without being noticed.
The adolescent brain continues to slowly develop until around the age of 25, when it becomes a mature, adult brain. Teens and young adults are prone to struggles with low impulse control; poor decision making; and a myriad of social anxieties, mixed with surging hormones and the natural desire to begin experimenting with romantic and sexual relationships. Youth are naturally vulnerable to having difficult experiences and will at times behave recklessly until they mature.
When smart phones entered our lives, we saw a significant increase in teen depression, anxiety and suicidal feelings and behavior. Cyberbullying can be more vicious than in-person bullying, because the bully, perceiving the barrier of the device, feels freer to act out. Teens have become meaner and more critical toward each other. Social media is based on getting as many “likes” and views as possible, but the means of doing so are superficial and lack meaning. This sets teens up to feel both a deeper fear of not being as popular as the kid with more “likes” and also an empty feeling of not having “real” friends. The typical stresses of teen social life have been dramatically accentuated.
There is a current trend in our society to expose youth to subject matters that are dark, unhealthy, and beyond their years. Various forms of media entertainment regularly include themes of cynicism and meanness disguised as humor that promotes misogyny; violence towards girls and women; sexual objectification of both boys and girls; drug use; gang and criminal activity; and ideas about sexuality that are devoid of emotional connection and are influenced by the world of pornography.
Basic details of the dark side of social media
Computers and smart phones give easy access to pornography.
The behavior of porn stars has become a model for sexual behavior.
Watching porn has become “cool”, especially for boys.
Boys want their girlfriends to do what they see being portrayed on porn sights. Girls feel they need to act that way in order to get their boyfriend’s approval. Less often, girls may be the aggressor, modeling what they have seen on porn sites.
When teens break up or are upset with each other, they may use “revenge porn” to hurt the other person, sending screenshots they have taken of the other person’s nude body, explicit videos and texts, out to the larger youth community.
Sexting is against the law and falls under the child pornography laws. It was a felony for a person of any age to send sexual material over the internet until recently, and still is in some states. Washington state passed legislation to change it to a gross misdemeanor in 2019.
Sexting makes it easier to express sexuality in unhealthy ways, since there is no real connection and the device is a barrier.
Sexting has increased for both middle and high school students during the pandemic and has influenced teens to do things they will likely later regret. It is not unusual for teens to have seen photos of other teen’s private areas.
“Do you send?” is the current lingo for finding out if the other party will send nudes.
The App is for making short videos and posting them. Some youth who are making Tik Tok dance videos are crossing the line from a hip-hop style of dancing into an erotic, soft porn style of dancing. Some Tik Tok “stars” who have thousands or even millions of followers are often normalizing physical movements that are sexy and erotic. They may wear clothing that verges on revealing. Some teens make videos that contain themes of violence, racism, drugs, misogyny, profanity and more.
Kids want to emulate what they see and then experiment with those same movements and trends. Once this kind of behavior becomes normalized, kids become desensitized to any sense of discomfort they might naturally feel and they don’t develop appropriate boundaries for how to maintain some level of modesty, self protection and respectful behavior. They are now vulnerable to going even further over the line into unhealthy behaviors.
The algorithms are designed to automatically show the teen more of what they have been watching. So if your teen interacts with even one violent or sexy themed video, they will get more of these sent to their account.
Instagram is a format for sharing photos, videos and selfies. It is a trend for girls to promote themselves as sex symbols. Some women post suggestive pictures of themselves, and these can have an element of soft porn.
If your teen chooses to interact with a sexually suggestive post, this kind of content will show up on their “feed” more often.
This site is often considered the most dangerous. Middle school teens are especially vulnerable. Any videos, photos or texts disappear in 24 hours. It is easier to act out and take risks because it will disappear.
Sexting is becoming more prevalent on this site, as it cannot be tracked by parents. Nudes, videos, porn images can be posted to the account holder’s “story."
Screenshots can be taken of any of these posts and used to threaten or demand more explicit material from the victim.
Teens sometimes share their login information with each other. Accounts can easily be hacked. Predators or bullying teens will hack into an account and then threaten to post nudes in order to get the original account holder to send them nudes and videos.
Drug dealers use Snapchat to sell drugs.
Most teens have people they don't know on their account, making it easy for predatory people from other areas to groom them for eventual sexting.
“Sugar Daddies” are becoming more common, luring girls into a form of sex trafficking, where they receive money or gifts in exchange for sending nudes and videos.
These toxic elements of teen culture are having a significant impact on the social-emotional lives and mental health of our youth. Parents are presented with a heavy burden for how to allow their kids to have some healthy freedoms while also keeping them safe.
Here are some suggestions for what parents can do
Set up “Parental Controls” on your child’s phone and computer. There are controls you can utilize for free or for purchase. An online search provides a lot of options to choose from. (Bark is extending a 20% discount for Raising Resilience community members if you use the code, RESILIENCE).
Consider limiting social media, or not having it at all during younger teen years.
Become a co-manager of your teen’s social media account. Pay close attention to what they are doing. Though it is more intrusive, it brings balance to the extraordinary amount of privacy teens have due to technology.
Be prepared to have regular conversations about difficult subjects, like pornography, violence, misogyny, sexual objectification.
Find movies and TV shows that depict healthy examples of relationships between teenagers, with respectful and caring behavior and healthy boundaries.
“Common Sense Media” has an educational guide for social media sites and reviews for movies, TV shows, music, books, video games.
“Tech Talk Tuesdays” is a weekly blog written by Delaney Ruston, MD, who created the movie, “SCREENAGERS," and provides excellent guidance for parenting during the age of technology. She has a recent blog for talking to teens about pornography.
Written by: Olivia Joy Salamon, M.A. Child/Teen and Family Therapist on Bainbridge Island