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Perils of Social Media - 3 Protecting Young People


Image generated entirely by Microsoft Bing AI

How do you hold back the tide?

When I mentioned to my granddaughters -now aged 18, 16 and 13 respectively, that the Australian Government was planning to introduce an age limit of 16 on Social Media use, they practically fell about laughing. “That horse bolted long ago, Grandma,” was their response. I think our poor Prime Minister would be shocked if he knew how widespread social media use was among teens and what competent users they are. 

According to Science News 2/3rds of 13 -17-year-olds use Media platforms like TikTok and 60% use Snapchat or Instagram.

The young people in my orbit have all been using Social Media at least since late Primary School. With the days when children could play with their friends in the neighbourhood long over, they use it to chat to their school friends, stay in touch with those they’ve made all over the country, share music, jokes, craft, beauty and make up ideas, all with no apparent ill – effects. 

They are more sophisticated users than most adults  - it is the over 65s who are most frequently scammed, and they are more aware of the pitfalls, though that’s not to say that they are conscious of the various algorithms being used to keep them hooked.

Many governments and social media platforms and have long had bans on social media use for under 13 year – olds. In the USA the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) which was to prevent collection of data from and marketing to people under 13, came into effect in 2000.  

The European Union has had its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) since 2016, which also seeks to prevent collection, as well as sharing and retention of data in regard to people under 13, and this has served a model for other countries including Turkey, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, Argentina, The UK and Chile.

In consequence, and in the wake of some landmark court cases, Social Media platforms have also incorporated such principles. For example, Facebook (Meta), Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and Skype have all had under 13 bans. WhatsApp has recently raised its bottom age limit to 16 and although YouTube doesn’t have an age limit, it requires the use of a credit card to open an account, which assumes an adult is involved. 

Unfortunately, none of this has deterred unscrupulous operators from taking advantage of young people. For example, one Dating App did not exclude 13-year-olds from joining, thereby exposing the latter to potential predators and grooming. Nor has it prevented young people from accessing potentially harmful material.

Australia’s eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant, likens banning young people from Social Media to  banning them from the ocean.  We know there are dangers, but would we deny thousands of young people access to the beach?

Other Reasons why Age Bans won't Work

  •  Maturity levels vary greatly

One size does not fit all. On average, boys mature at least two years later than girls. Are we going to say they can’t use social media until they are 18? There are adults who shouldn’t be on social media.  It’s a bit like saying the average 8-year-old wears a size 5 shoe, so we are just going to make them all that size. Even worse, while shoe size can be measured objectively, that isn’t the case with capacity to reason.

  • Not very effective

Bans are a very blunt instrument for achieving protection for young people. Apart from a few prosecutions and fines, there has been little enforcement of the rules. Some regard the fines as simply being the cost of doing business. Even when offensive websites are shut down, they simply reopen under another name because there is too much money to be made. See for example, the ABC video in regard to a porn site which exploited the photos of young women.

  •  Stifling Creativity

Many creatives find their inspiration, feedback and publicity for their work online and age is no barrier. Sixteen – year old Sydney newscaster Leonardo Pugliesi, began his live streaming platform at the age of 11. It wouldn’t have happened without access to social media. 
My oldest son started coding before he was eleven, but could only advance his skills by resorting to the internet. For more on the impact of social media on creativity such as the exposure to a broad range of ideas, click here.

  •  The Cure might be worse than the Disease 

    The degree of Surveillance and Invasions of Privacy required to do, so may be more harmful  than the problems which we are trying to address. 
    Oldest son who works in IT, says that age bans would backfire because young people would simply register accounts which have higher ages set and be exposed to things like dating sites and undesirable ads as well as having their data hoovered up anyway. 

What do we need to Protect Young People from? 

I'll expand more fully on each of these below and suggest some ways in which parents and others can help.

1.       Protection from Predators, Grooming and Sexual Exploitation

2.       Effects on Mental Health and Self -esteem

3.       Bullying, Harassment, Trolling

4.       Exposure to overly graphic images of Violence, Sexually Explicit Material, Porn

5.       Impact on Education

6.       Impact on Physical Health, Lack of Sleep, Lack of Exercise

7.       Spreading of Fake News, Misinformation and Manipulated Images, Deep Fakes

8.       Data Theft and Misuse

9.       Commercial Exploitation

10.   Recruitment to Cults, Terrorism, Extremist Political views and Propaganda

In my view, rather than restricting young people, we need to rein in the powerful media giants to do more to protect them. They have the resources, the technology and superior knowledge about how young people think and behave. I think it is unconscionable that they are exploiting this information for the benefit of advertisers and greater profit. 

However, until that happy day when the big media platforms return to their original philosophy “Don’t be Evil” here are some ways in which parents, educators and others can mitigate against the worst dangers.  

What Parents and Others can Do

Family Agreements

Parents may not always know best what their children are ready for, but will probably have a better idea than outside agencies. Far better to establish some basic ground rules about viewing, screen time and what to do if something upsets them online, before children access social media.  This means open and honest communication, dinner table discussion and so on. UK based has some excellent ideas including a Family Agreement and discussion points.

Internet Literacy

 Unfortunately, not all young people have the benefit of family discussions, which places an additional burden on schools to teach Internet Literacy as well. Just like “Show and Tell” in the early years, young people could be encouraged to spend a few minutes talking about what they’ve seen and heard on social media and then discuss whether they found it helpful or offensive and why. Reporting of some sites may be necessary if Social Media companies have failed to remove them themselves. This would encourage critical thinking and make students more discerning users.

Oldest son tell me that his daughter's school is teaching online safety in Grade 3 because they are starting to use computers. 

1.    Online Safety, Protection from Predators, Sexual Exploitation  

Unscrupulous people will exploit any opportunity to manipulate others and have their own ways to circumvent safeguards, be they age limits or anything else. If young people can get around them, how much easier for sophisticated scammers and marketers?   

While awareness is one part of a good defence, it is not fair that the burden of preventing such things should be placed entirely on children, parents and schools, who are often less internet savvy than the children themselves. 

I believe this is an area where both governments and the social media platforms could do a great deal more. In the meantime there are some excellent resources for parents, teachers and young people on  Tailored to various age groups, they include  prompts for discussing Online Safety.

2.    Effects on Mental Health and Self Esteem  

Several studies have shown that more than three hours of social media use can result in increased depression and anxiety.

However, a 2022 study of 13 -17-year-olds found that social media made them feel more connected, supported and  positive. Seven out of 39 worldwide studies found a positive relationship between social media use and mental health, while only three found a negative impact.  

Though a large longitudinal study found positive results overall by the time children reached adulthood, there were some periods when teens were more vulnerable than others to negative impacts, though the precise reasons for that correlation were not clear. Indeed, the same study found that both too little and too much social media could cause a slight negative impact on mental health. 

 Some researchers argue that it could work the other way i.e. that worry and poor mental health drives greater social media usage. People who do not have trusted friends or an adult they feel comfortable with, may find solace on the internet. My youngest son - the one on the spectrum, only found his voice and his tribe on the internet- people who shared his passion for insects, robotics and crazy engineering projects.

Enhancing Self Esteem

Constant comparison with others or worrying about what our peers think about how we look and what we say, could indeed add to stress and lack of self -esteem. Before social media we had magazines and air brushing which presented unrealistic images of perfection intended to make young people dissatisfied with their appearance and resulting in anorexia and other harms and social media does it on steroids. Education is our children’s best defence in that respect as well, along with warning them that not everything they see on Social Media is the absolute Truth. See below re Spotting Fakes etc. 

See also Child. for how to deal with self -image issues.

3.    Online Bullying, Hate Speech and Trolling  

Facebook (Meta) has some excellent tools for teens to recognise and stop online bullying. 

Two very nasty forms have emerged quite recently. Private school boys in Melbourne were suspended for creating online lists rating the desirability of girls at their school.

Another case involved schoolboys using AI to create explicit images of their female classmates and there were reports of a similar case in the USA.

For those who don’t know how to broach this subject, there is a movie called The "Anti Social Network" on YouTube (UK) which is about online trolls. There is also one on Netflix with a similar name “The Anti-Social Network: Memes to Mayhem”  

Another Netflix film “13 Reasons” may be helpful for older teens. Rated 15+ because it has references to self harm, sexual assault and some violence, its final series also has a discussion by mental health professionals and the cast in response to the most common questions. Every episode lists helplines and tells viewers what to do if something upsets them.

Obviously children must be taught anyway, not do anything online that they wouldn’t want done to them or that they would not do in real life. When adults do it, it should be a criminal offence, when kids do it to other kids, it should involve withdrawal of internet privileges, by providers if necessary, along with public apologies or restitution to those harmed.

Young people should also be encouraged to speak out about this with no shame, as that way, it is most easily stopped. See for example the girl who was able to tell her mother in “The Most Hated Man on the Internet,” who then had the laws changed as well as helping numerous other victims who had been similarly maligned, but didn’t have such a close relationship.   

Facebook (Meta) has a section on how to protect accounts on Facebook and Instagram, remove likes or dislikes, and people or comments you don't want. TikTok has similar instructions.

  4.      Exposure to Graphic Violence and Sexually Explicit Material

Detecting and identifying such material online is one of the better uses of AI since it can act with far greater speed than humans, rather than waiting for some clumsy complaints procedure and take down notices. 

However, it does require human oversight, because we do not want groups such as the Breastfeeding Mothers -which many new mothers relied on, excluded as they were at one stage on Facebook, because it showed naked breasts. Nudity per se should not be an issue. In my humble opinion, it’s good for young people to see healthy human bodies and depictions of healthy relationships, lest our children become like Harlow’s Monkeys (1965). Without peer modelling of good mating and parenting behaviour, those which were raised by wire mothers ended up eating their young. Think of it as a health issue, rather than a moral issue.

Children are naturally curious about physical differences and relationships. What is at issue is sexually demeaning, violent or coercive sex. See the interesting conversation starters on by young people around porn for example.

 5.    Impact on Education 

One of the aspects of social media which I have mixed feelings about, is the loss of traditional skills. As Brett Henebery’s article in “The Educator” points out, 89% of teachers report negative impacts on children’s reading habits and the shortening of attention spans. [Mine too].

Fortunately, all the granddaughters read as well, despite social media use and they mostly do well academically too and it’s not as if they aren’t learning anything. While I consider the acquisition of basic skills such as reading, writing and mathematics essential to gain access to any domain of their choosing, perhaps we shouldn’t only look at what children are losing, but at what they are gaining. 

When I observe young people around me, they are very proficient at looking up what they don't know, have excellent communication skills and are competent users of all kinds of visual media. Granddaughter #1 has been producing PowerPoint presentations, Quizzes and hilarious sketches using social media for years.

Given the volumes of information being produced and available on the internet every day,  perhaps it becomes more important to be able to ask the right questions, know which are reliable sources and being able to analyse what you find and then preferably being able to arrive at your own conclusions and produce your own materials.  

They say it takes 1000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. I would say that my oldest son got those in on the internet in early High School, if often at the expense of sleep and school work. However, by the time he was in his late teens he’d landed a job as a web designer and he eventually gained university accreditation too. That's not say formal education is wasted, but new ideas don’t necessarily come from doing the same old thing.

Would Bill Gates have developed Windows, if he had not been allowed to spend unlimited time in his parent’s garage?  Education leader Finland, builds loads of free time into its curriculum so that students can develop their own interests. It does not however, allow social media use in class.

This is the new frontier. Today’s children may be glued to their phones and their spelling may be hit and miss – “That’s what spell checkers are for, Grandma,” they tell me, but they are absorbing information as fast as they can type, and that is lightning fast. Yes, I want them to play outside more and to focus on other subjects too like music, so that they aren’t just a one trick pony which could be overtaken by the next technological advance, but banning it is not necessarily the right course either. Perhaps TikTok has the right idea.

 TikTok has recently announced a 60 -minute daily limit on screen time. Users under 18 can extend this by putting in a passcode, but those under 13 must get parental or carer permission as well to extend it for an additional 30 minutes. 

The times have been recommended by the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston’s Children’s Hospital. There is also a Family Pairing option which allows parents to manage the privacy and security of their children’s viewing,  to customise screen time to suit their child  and a dashboard so that they can see how long their teens are spending on the platform. 

TikTok even reminds users to get some sleep. Perhaps it should also remind children to go outside and “touch the grass” or get some exercise at regular intervals. I also think it’s a good idea that phones are banned during school hours.

Japan holds parents responsible if their children spend too long on the internet, but I think this is hardly fair given the lengths to which social media platforms go to capture attention. It is an unequal David and Goliath contest where Media companies hold all the cards. 

When I tried to limit my oldest son's internet access, he simply went to the library, to his friends, McDonalds or to any unsecured internet connection he had found in the neighbourhood.

 6.    Fake News, Deep Fakes, Misinformation

Health misinformation, promotion of rumours and conspiracy theories or simply bad science or science in the agency of vested interests, are all likely to be encountered sooner or later and given the way is AI is moving ahead in leaps and bounds, it is becoming more difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, even something we’ve seen with our own eyes. 

What's wrong with this picture?

 Given the advances in AI, it could also be a force for good in this. It would be much faster at detecting such things and getting rid of them from the platforms which children use. It should not have to constantly fall upon parents, teachers or the community to weed them out. Until that happens, here's how to help 11 – 18 y-olds to spot, fact - check and report fake news 

I would however, make exception in the case of satire and the like, but many young people do take things very literally. I think the question then is, will it hurt someone?

7.    Misuse of Data, and Private Images

This too should be strongly legislated against as California has done, with strong penalties for Social Media Companies, not just the perpetrators. It’s not as if companies don’t have the tools to do this. AI has excellent detection capabilities without necessarily posing a risk to privacy.

  8.    Recruitment to Cults, Terror Groups, Exposure to Extreme Political Views  

Much of this is already a crime, but should be monitored and enforced more thoroughly. Again, a responsibility for media companies if they wish to retain their social licence to operate.

9.    Surveillance, Data Retention, Data Breaches and Privacy

This raises the question of not how much monitoring and surveillance there should be, but how it can be done, while still retaining privacy. Anonymising users, but identifying wrong doers is possible. To incentivise companies holding data to use it only for the purpose intended and to take good care of it, the European Union's GDPR includes compensation for victims in the event of a data breach or use of data for purposes other than use of the service being applied for.

Since issues such as Data Appropriation, Data Breaches and the Right to be Forgotten, also apply to adults, we should perhaps explore this issue more fully in a separate post. Young people and their parents, should however, be shown how to keep their information safe and be warned that what they put on the internet stays on the internet. Another good reason to be nice.

 10. Commercial Exploitation

I am deeply opposed to commercial exploitation of children for profit either by corporations seeking to sell products or by social media companies seeking to profit from such companies. To use children and pit the unformed cognitive apparatus of children against highly sophisticated marketing strategies of teams of the world’s best psychologists and marketers is akin to being a drug pusher and should be treated as the crime it is.  See for example, the excellent Four Corners video on the work of Child Influencers, which is available on YouTube.

Many years ago, Australia banned banks from using fairly innocent marketing materials – story books, piggy banks and treasure maps with a logo, which were merely intended to create brand awareness. We also stopped advertising tobacco on TV, and no longer allow alcohol ads to be shown during children’s viewing times, so why do we let this stand? 

I Would like to see the same logic applied gambling type operations such as gameplay which encourage additional spending by promising ‘loot boxes' and the like.

Some spaces ought to be sacrosanct. A society which sacrifices the interests of its youth on the altar of commerce is a sign of ultimate depravity and decline.

11.   Political Persuasion, Propaganda and Manipulation

I am even more opposed to the use of Social Media to manipulate political opinion, especially with respect to teens. By this I mean not just outright propaganda, hate speech and incitement to violence, but the use of young people’s likes and dislikes, relationships and behaviour to promote specific viewpoints as per Cambridge Analytica. 

Much as I value the Right to Free Speech and want to see a wild and free Internet, including Social Media - societies have been most creative and innovative when they have been allowed maximum freedom, the Cowboys of the Internet have created a whole range new risks and we must now make sure that the companies which have access to our children, understand that they have a special obligation to keep their data safe and from being used in this way. That's what we should be pressuring politicians about. 

My secret fantasy is for anyone working in IT, to swear a sacred oath to pull the plug on bad behaviour, especially if the companies can't be persuaded to do it themselves. 

Any new technology causes lots of hand -wringing. The world saw it when popular novels emerged in the C16th following the arrival of the Gutenberg press which was previously only used for printing great works and Bibles. “Guaranteed to rot the brain, give people unhealthy fantasies and ideas and lead to moral decline and the downfall of the human race,” said the influencers of the day, and they predicted much the same when comics and television arrived on the scene.

 While we should certainly be aware of and mitigate against potential harm - for example, we ask public broadcasters to not show inappropriate content at times young children are likely to see it. We ask that they not show alcohol, cigarette advertising or gambling and preferably not advertising for sugar -filled cereals and drinks and fast food – and so forth, the emergence of mass media has the led to the democratisation of information as well as entertainment.

I don't see why Social Media, properly restrained in the service of humanity, can’t be a tremendous force for good, just as Superman Comics and or TV series such as Star Trek were to generations of young people before. 

 Thanks to Microsoft Bing AI for responses to questions and providing useful links