Jun 5, 2023
Last week, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a statement warning parents that social media presents a “profound risk of harm” to children and adolescents. He said: "We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis – one that we must urgently address.”
Before you close this post thinking that this doesn’t apply to you because your kids “don’t use social media”-- hang on a minute.
Because if your kid has ever watched a YouTube video, scrolled through Pinterest, or made a playlist in Spotify…then yes, they’ve used a social media platform.
These platforms are indeed social media.
YouTube, with 2.51 billion users, is the second most used social media platform in the world (Facebook is first– and Meta, Facebook’s parent company, also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, which technically makes Meta the number one social media platform in the world.)
If your kid uses YouTube, they’re using social media.
We have to stop thinking that social media is just TikTok and Snapchat and Facebook and Instagram. Those are the obvious examples, but as parents we need to be careful about condemning those sites and feeling self-righteous about our parenting choices if our kids are also using YouTube.
Or Pinterest. Or Roblox. Or Etsy. Or Spotify.
So what makes YouTube or Etsy a social media site?
Let’s look at the dictionary definition of social media:
A form of electronic communication (like websites)...
Where users create or engage in online communities (such as pages in Pinterest or playlists in Spotify or channels on YouTube)...
With the ability to share ideas, personal messages, and other content (like chat rooms or message boards or comment threads in any number of digital platforms).
Thus, anytime children have the option to chat in-app with strangers (or “friends”) or create, post, or share content in an online location, they are participating in a social media platform.
Why does all of this matter?
Because even if your kid isn’t on TikTok or Instagram (and let’s be honest, many parents who think their kid isn’t on those platforms are naive or misguided), the risk to your kid is the same.
In all these environments– YouTube, Spotify, Pinterest, Tiktok, Roblox– kids experience:
Hyper-FOMO: While the feeling of missing out is developmentally normal for kids, it is intensified online. Dr. Murthy says as much when he warns about the mental health risks to children from social media use.
Bullying and exclusion: This is also, unfortunately, something that happens often in childhood. But when magnified by social media comment threads and “I hate Megan” Facebook groups (one of my former students experienced this), it is much worse. Ergo, mental health declines.
Pornography and other inappropriate content. Yes, it’s on YouTube. But it’s also on Pinterest and Spotify and Etsy. It is literally everywhere. Parents, it is not a question of if your kid sees porn; it is a question of when. And chances are, they’ve already encountered it. This is a conversation you need to be having every single day if your child spends time online.
Predatory grooming is dangerous – And it happens all the time, especially in online places where children are hanging out…like Roblox. An FBI special agent recently said “instead of being worried about your kid going to the park alone, [parents] should be more worried about them being online alone.” Given the stories I’ve heard, this doesn’t surprise me at all. Let your kids walk to the park alone. Don’t let them play Roblox alone.
Data mining and privacy violations. This is a seemingly boring topic that most of us just shrug our shoulders at, but the fact that Big Tech (and also EdTech) are collecting all kinds of information about our children as minors and creating marketing profiles based on their habits should deeply concern us.
Even worse, schools use social media too. Not just to advertise sports or extracurriculars, but in the way EdTech platforms mimic social media sites and present some of the same risks.
Just as an example, here is a screenshot I took recently of my daughter’s search for “Manga facts for kids” using Kiddle, the school district-approved “kid-friendly” search platform (problem #1: it is owned by Google). You tell me if the ad content (problem #2: there are ads) isn’t concerning (problem #3: see imagery).
What should I do as a parent?
Stay with me.
You’re right– this makes parenting so much more challenging. Maybe you felt like you had a handle on it because your kids “weren’t on social media yet” or because you use monitoring software to keep an eye on things. I know your intentions are good. I know you are doing what you think is best for your kids. But I need you to know– it may not be enough.
Sure, we can try to shut off in-app chatting or restrict communication to only “known” friends, but as I often say, this is just another version of digital whac-a-mole. You can block or restrict one site only to learn tomorrow that there is another one waiting in the wings. The kids always find the workarounds.
So here are a few suggestions:
Accept the reality of social media. Don’t think your kid is avoiding it. If your kid is using YouTube, Roblox, Spotify, etc….accept the fact that they are using social media and you need to pay attention. You can’t hold back a tsunami with sandbags. Whether you want them to or not, your kid is or will soon engage with social media or social media-lite platforms. (Chances are, they are engaging heavily in social media platforms for school already.)
Bans and prohibitions won’t work. I know there are groups out there fighting to ban TikTok or block pornography sites or sell you parental controls and their intentions (usually) are good. But on behalf of every single parent client I have had, please hear me when I say, It won’t work.
What does work? Becoming tech-intentional, and you do that in 3 ways:
Less is more: any time you have the option, choose non-screen. If you are using screens, choose shared screens in a public space vs. headphones in a private one. If kids are getting screen use at school, decrease their screen use at home. If the school requires it, push back.
Later is better. Don’t hand iPhones to babies when you’re changing diapers or to toddlers in the grocery store. Don’t get your elementary school student a smartwatch to “communicate” with you or “track” them. Find ways to help engage your tween socially without resorting to social media.
Relationships before screens. With nearly anything in parenting, your relationship to and with your child will matter more than any rule or limit you set. Building connection, learning to trust and respect one another, and learning how to make mistakes and repair them is the single most important solution to the screentime and social media problem. When something bad happens (and it will), you want your kid to come to you.
There is good news in all of this (I promise): the Surgeon General is saying out loud, to the country, what many of my colleagues and I have been saying for years. Bringing national attention to this topic is a good thing, and will hopefully spur further legislative action.
In the meantime, it’s true that it’s mainly up to the parents to mitigate the fallout. Don’t lose heart. Don’t give up. Even small changes matter.
This is a fight worth having–
All the best,