Dangers of the Internet for Kids: Exposure To Inappropriate Content
The rapid growth of the internet and social media platforms has transformed the way we communicate, learn, and interact with the world. However, with this digital revolution comes a dark side that poses potential risks, particularly for children and adolescents. The recent Surgeon General's advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health shed light on the dangers of exposing young minds to extreme, inappropriate, and harmful content. Let’s explore some of the research related to child and teen exposure to inappropriate content, the consequences of such exposure and discuss ways to protect our children in the online world.
The Accessibility of Inappropriate and Harmful Content
The internet offers an expansive array of information, but unfortunately, not all of it is suitable for young audiences. Inappropriate and harmful content can take many forms, ranging from explicit imagery and violence to cyberbullying and hate speech. Content that may not even be considered explicit can still be incredibly harmful for developing minds, such as risk-taking challenges or influencer content that leads to social comparison and negative body image. Social media platforms, in particular, can expose children to these harmful elements through direct pushes, unwanted exchanges, and algorithmic designs that tailor content to user preferences. Without proper supervision, children can stumble upon or be deliberately exposed to inappropriate content that may have lasting negative effects.
Tragic Cases and the Normalization of Harmful Behaviors
Exposure to Suicide- and Self-Harm-Related Content
Exposure to suicide- and self-harm-related content can have devastating consequences for vulnerable individuals, particularly children and adolescents. Such content can normalize and romanticize self-destructive behaviors, leading to an increased risk of self-harm and suicide. Young minds may become desensitized to the seriousness of these actions, viewing them as acceptable or even desirable. This exposure can contribute to a contagion effect, where vulnerable individuals may imitate or be influenced by the behavior they encounter online, exacerbating the risk of self-harm and suicide.
Heartbreaking incidents have linked childhood deaths to exposure to suicide- and self-harm-related content. In November 2017, Molly, a resident of Harrow in north-west London, tragically passed away following exposure to harmful content related to suicide, depression, anxiety, and self-harm on platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest.
Unfortunately, Molly’s case is just one of many. This tragic trend is so widespread that on November 15th, 2022, dozens of parents whose children’s death or harm was linked to social media, took the issue to Congress in Washington, DC. These parent advocates demanded swift action and advancement on the Kids Online Safety Act and the Children and Teens' Online Privacy Protection Act, two bills that recently passed a significant committee milestone. These legislative measures aim to empower parents with increased authority over their children's online engagement, mandate default implementation of safeguards for kids by companies, and enhance limitations on data collection from users aged 13 to 16.
While steps are being taken to address the dangers of the internet and social media, we must acknowledge that we are far from creating a safe environment online for all children. The tragic incidents related to mental health and social media, like Molly's and the dozens of others, serve as heartbreaking reminders of the urgent need for action.
While the Kids Online Safety Act and the Children and Teens' Online Privacy Protection Act are important legislative measures, they represent just a fraction of what needs to be done to protect our children NOW from the risks associated with exposure to suicide- and self-harm-related content.
Risk-Taking Challenges Circulated on Social Media Platforms
Though any young person can have their mental health harmed by inappropriate content online and on social media, exposure to suicide- and self-harm-related content isn’t the only risk your child faces as they begin to navigate social media and the internet.
It’s essential to remember that kids and teens are more prone to risk-taking behavior due to a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. These factors contribute to their unique developmental stage and the challenges they face during this period of their lives. Here are a few reasons why children and adolescents are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors:
- Brain Development: The brain continues to develop throughout childhood and adolescence, with the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and impulse control, being one of the last areas to mature. This imbalance between the developing emotional and impulsive regions of the brain and the still-developing executive functions can lead to increased impulsivity and a reduced ability to weigh potential risks accurately.
- Sensation-seeking and Novelty-seeking: During adolescence, there is an increased drive for new experiences and sensations. Teens often seek out novel and exciting activities to fulfill their need for stimulation, which can lead to engaging in risky behaviors as a means of seeking thrill and excitement.
- Peer Influence: The influence of peers is significant during adolescence. Adolescents often seek acceptance and validation from their peers, which can lead them to engage in risky behaviors to fit in or gain social status. Peer pressure can override their ability to make independent and rational decisions, increasing their likelihood of taking risks.
- Emotional Intensity: Adolescence is a period characterized by intense emotions and a heightened sensitivity to rewards and social feedback. This emotional intensity can lead to impulsive decision-making and a greater willingness to take risks, driven by the desire for immediate gratification or to escape negative emotions.
- Development of Identity and Autonomy: Adolescence is a time of self-discovery and forming one's identity. As young individuals strive to establish autonomy and assert their independence, they may experiment with risky behaviors as a way to test boundaries, challenge authority, and explore their own limits.
That’s why the circulation of risk-taking challenges on social media platforms poses such a significant danger to young users. These challenges often encourage participants to engage in dangerous activities that can cause physical harm or even death. In their pursuit of validation, acceptance, or a sense of belonging, children and adolescents may be tempted to partake in these challenges without fully understanding the potential consequences. The pressure to conform and gain recognition among their peers can override critical thinking, resulting in serious injuries or fatalities. The viral nature of these challenges further amplifies their reach and influence, making it crucial to address and combat their dissemination.
Social Media Platforms, Social Comparison, and Mental Health
Social media platforms have become breeding grounds for social comparison, leading to adverse effects on mental health, particularly among adolescent girls. The constant exposure to carefully curated and filtered representations of other people's lives can create unrealistic standards of beauty, success, and happiness.
Users, especially young ones, may feel inadequate or inferior when comparing themselves to the seemingly perfect lives showcased on social media. This can contribute to body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors, low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. The pressure to conform to societal beauty standards and seek validation through likes, comments, and follower counts can intensify these negative emotions and impact overall mental well-being.
In fact, in a study "Social comparisons on social media: online appearance-related activity and body dissatisfaction in adolescent girls" looked at how spending time on social media and comparing oneself to others can make adolescent girls feel unhappy with their bodies.
The study found that young girls and teens who spent more time comparing themselves to others on social media were more likely to feel dissatisfied with their bodies. Comparing themselves to their close friends made them feel the worst about their own appearance. The study also showed that spending a lot of time comparing themselves to others on social media was a major contributor to why adolescent girls felt unhappy with their bodies and led to problems like eating disorders, low self-esteem, and feeling anxious or depressed.
It's important for parents, teachers, and tech companies to understand the effects of social media on youth mental health. Limiting time on social media, encouraging alternative activities like reading, sports, art, music, etc. as well as teaching kids and adolescents to think critically about what they see on social media can make a difference.
Exposure to Hate-Based Content
Unfortunately, hate-based content is prevalent on social media platforms, and many adolescents report exposure to racist content or language. The dissemination of hate speech can have serious psychological and emotional consequences. It can perpetuate stereotypes, foster discrimination, and contribute to the development of prejudiced attitudes and behaviors. Exposure to such content can lead to increased levels of stress, anxiety, and feelings of insecurity, especially among marginalized communities. Furthermore, the normalization of hate speech can contribute to the formation of echo chambers, where individuals with similar beliefs reinforce and amplify their prejudiced views, further dividing society.
A 2020 study, Youth Exposure to Hate in the Online Space: An Exploratory Analysis, looked at how young people are exposed to hateful material online. Researchers wanted to find out what factors make young people more likely to encounter hate messages on the internet.
They surveyed 320 students aged 14 to 19 from two high schools in Massachusetts. The students answered questions about their online behavior, such as how much time they spent on social media and if they chatted with strangers. They also rated their perception of online risk and how much their parents supervised their online activities. The results showed that students who spent more time online, had lower academic performance, chatted with strangers, and had less parental supervision were more likely to come across hate messages.
The study also found that students who showed disinhibited behavior online and who were more accepting of racist views were at higher risk of encountering someone trying to convince them of these views. This study helps us understand the risk factors for exposure to online hate and can help in developing strategies to prevent such exposure.
How To Protect Kids Online
Unfortunately, protecting our children and teens from the dangers of inappropriate and harmful content online is a responsibility that falls on the shoulders of parents and caregivers. While the internet can be a valuable tool for education and connection, it is crucial to ensure our children's online experiences are safe and healthy.
Here are some practical steps parents can take to protect kids online:
- Open Communication: Foster an open and honest dialogue with your children about the internet and its potential risks. Encourage them to talk to you if they come across anything that makes them uncomfortable or worried. Emphasize to your child that people’s social media profile is not an accurate representation of reality and the harm associated with social comparison.
- Set Clear Boundaries: Establish clear guidelines for internet use, including screen time limits and specific rules about what kind of content is acceptable. Emphasize the importance of following these rules and explain the reasons behind them.
- Educate about Online Safety: Teach your children about the potential dangers of the internet, including exposure to inappropriate content and the risks of interacting with strangers online. Help them understand the importance of safeguarding their personal information and the potential consequences of sharing too much online.
- Use Safe Technology: Utilize technology tools that offer screen time controls and parental control features. These tools allow you to set limits on the amount of time your child spends online and block access to inappropriate content. Check out SoyMomo’s kid-safe smartwatch phone and anti-cyberbullying tablet, which offer screen time controls, connect to a parental control app and have other safety features that allow children to safely enter the digital world.
- Supervise Online Activities: Regularly monitor your child's online activities and be aware of the platforms they are using. Consider keeping computers and devices in common areas of the house where you can easily see what your child is doing online.
- Teach Critical Thinking: Help your children develop critical thinking skills to evaluate the content they come across online. Teach them to question the accuracy and credibility of information and encourage them to seek reliable sources.
- Encourage Offline Activities: Balance screen time with offline activities such as reading, sports, artistic pursuits, and spending time with friends and family. Encourage your children to engage in activities that promote their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
- Be a Positive Role Model: Model healthy online behavior by being mindful of your own internet use. Show your children the importance of using technology responsibly, treating others with kindness and respect, and being mindful of the content you share.
Remember, protecting our children in the online world requires ongoing effort and vigilance. By implementing these strategies and staying involved in their online lives, we can create a safer environment and empower our children to navigate the digital world with confidence and resilience.
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