Thanks to social media, we have access to information and news right at our fingertips, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We are able to connect with people around the world with the touch of a button. We are always up-to-date on current events, the stock market, and the latest Food Network recipes. Computers are not just at the office anymore, but in our hands, next to us on the couch, or in our purses or pockets. For those of us who experienced the rapid change to omnipresent Internet and computer access in the last couple of decades, it was revolutionary and exciting. But what about the generations who were born with it? Our children who have only experienced this technologically obsessed world, and nothing else?
My husband and I were privileged to be foster parents for a short time this year, and we learned a great number of lessons—but our most eye-opening revelation was the very real and dangerous threat that technology, particularly social media, poses to our children. I admit that I was naïve—believing that surely I could safely monitor my child and pose reasonable limits on her phone usage and computer time. While I understood that I probably could not protect her from everything, at the very least I could do my best and filter out the majority of the filth that is out there. How wrong I was.
The first problem: the school system. In some schools, student’s smartphone usage in the classroom is hardly limited, if at all. In addition, students are issued laptops or iPads to use throughout the school year. Although some apps and websites are blocked with school software, not everything is blocked and most kids are tech savvy enough to get around a simple firewall. So students are able to access YouTube or trawl Instagram and Snapchat for hours during the school day.
This leads me to the second problem: social media itself. Even if a child’s web browser is blocked on their phone, social media apps such as Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook act as pseudo-browsers, allowing the user to search for anything or anybody, just like Google Chrome or Safari. In fact, it seems that applications like Instagram and Snapchat, in particular, are actually built to encourage secrecy and inappropriate behavior among young people. The “Direct Messaging” features included with many of these social media apps are designed to almost instantly delete any message sent or received after it has been seen and read. In other words, your child could be instant messaging with Internet prowlers and you may never know it, because they can delete them before you see it. Children will exchange pornographic material—either from the Internet or of themselves—and immediately hide it. Worse, even if you are able to monitor your child’s social media activity and view every message as it is sent or received, how do you know that is your child’s only social media account? These applications make it possible to create multiple accounts without a phone number or email verification, thus allowing anyone to have multiple online personalities.
The third problem: a lack of meaningful age restrictions. As I was researching kid-safe monitoring software and setting up my child’s phone, I was shocked to discover that Google and many other applications allow unmonitored accounts beginning at the age of 13. Once a child turns 13, Google, as well as Instagram, is not required to allow parents or guardians full access to their child’s account. This is from Instagram’s Help Center, in response to the question “Can I have access to my teen’s account?”:
We appreciate your concern for your child’s use of our app, but unfortunately we can’t give you access to the account or take any action on the account at your request. We’re generally forbidden by privacy laws against giving unauthorized access to someone who isn’t an account holder.
Please note that all users ages 13 and older are considered authorized account holders and are included in the scope of this policy.
As if upon turning 13 a child magically has the self-control to make appropriate Internet decisions she didn’t have at 12? Google also agrees that a 13-year-old is old enough to handle his or her own account. This is from their support site in response to “I want to create a Google Account for my kid who is over 13”:
You can only create Google Accounts through Family Link for kids who are under 13.
If your kid over 13 wants a Google Account, they can create their own account.
Google further explains on their site that once a child turns 13, they will receive an email giving them two options: “Continue to have their account managed by their parents” or “Manage their own account.” To these large technology and social media corporations, parents no longer have the right to monitor their teenager’s activity. Their goal is not safety, but profit.
The fourth problem: narcissism. Whenever I looked at Instagram, there was never a single useful thing posted. By anyone. Ever. Most teenagers and children are not using social media in any productive manner at all. Sometimes the argument is made that if we do not allow our children to be active on social media, they will miss out on all sorts of social activities and be ostracized. This, in my experience, is simply not true. Not once did I see any plans or helpful information posted. What I did see was a lot of faces. Every single teen was posting pictures of themselves, making stupid or suggestive faces, or posting self-absorbed short videos. Most posts I saw consisted of getting ready for school, driving, or making dumb faces in the mirror.
The fifth problem: pornography. Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook all claim to monitor inappropriate and pornographic material. Their idea of “monitoring” is allowing users to report any inappropriate posts and then removing them, only to have them reposted again an hour later. This is hardly an acceptable solution. As I mentioned before, the messaging features also allow for constant flow of inappropriate material. Sexting is rampant. In his book The Porn Myth, Matt Fradd reports, “Conservative estimates say about 20 percent of 16-year-olds and 30 percent of 17-year-olds have received a sext (a sexually explicit text message) on their cell phones.” These kids are not only exchanging suggestive images or pictures of genitalia (and there is a lot of that), but also violent and graphic pornography that should make anyone’s hair curl. Fradd continues:
According to the 2010 Youth Internet Safety Survey, a quarter of US teens are exposed to porn online when they aren’t even looking for it…. The majority of the pornography consumed is accessed on mobile devices. An estimated 31 percent of teens own smartphones, and a smartphone without restrictions amounts to an X-rated theater in your pocket.
The sixth problem: bullying. Again, I admit my naïveté. I have seen all of the anti-bullying commercials and campaigns, and thought they were over-reactions. Of course, I realized bullying is a very real problem, but I had no idea that what I thought was happening in schools is only a fraction of the reality. Bullying reaches a whole other level in cyberspace. Kids are exchanging hateful texts and messages making fun of everything from the type of phone someone uses to a student’s sexual orientation, prudishness, lasciviousness, smarts, lack of smarts, suicidal tendencies, family situation—the list goes on. And the saddest part is that these kids think that this type of “teasing” is normal.
This flippant attitude toward fellow students combined with the rampant and easy exposure to pornography has created an elevation of rape and sexual assault among children that is beyond comprehension. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), every eight minutes a child is sexually assaulted. RAINN goes on to claim that of all the victims under the age of 18, two out of three are between the ages of 12 and 17. And unfortunately, some of this is peer-to-peer assault.
The solution: prudent parenting. Parents must become more cautious and more active in their children’s lives. Communicating with our children and being aware of the temptations they face is our first defense. And in my opinion, social media should not be an option until adulthood. The risks to body, soul, and mind are too great. Our children face enough issues without having increased exposure to pornography, sexual predators, and bullying. I hope that our school systems and lawmakers will become wiser, and pass legislation that protects our children from so easily entering the cyber battlefield.
As with everything, moderation is the key to utilizing technology successfully. There is so much potential for good—for evangelization and increased communication—when it comes to social media and the Internet, but we must always remain alert for the deceptions of Satan and capitalistic greed that drives some of these businesses. Change always begins with the family, so spend time talking with your kids, grandkids, nieces, and nephews about some of the dangers that social media poses, particularly pornography and cyber-bullying. Watch what they watch. Read what they read. These dangers are hidden on every level. Consider removing social media applications such as Instagram and Snapchat. Pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, because ultimately, He is the one who will guide our minds, eyes, hands, and hearts.