Staying Social While Social Distancing

As the lives of our teens’ transition from the daily cycle of school, sports, work, and homework to school from home, no sports, no jobs, and social distancing practices, social media has become a more significant part of their lives than ever.

There are both positive and negative sides to this influx in social media and internet communication use. Of course, teenagers have used the internet and its various virtual communication apps and programs for years now as a way to communicate with their friends, play online games, or watch their favorite television programs. In essence, the use of technology for teens is nothing new.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced technology and social media as the only means of communication with their friends. So, how can they use social and virtual media as a mode of communication while still being safe?

What Counts as Social Media?

We hear the term social media all the time, and most of us assume we have a clear understanding of what social media encompasses. Generally, the first things that come to mind are online platforms that people of all ages use to connect with others, share media content (photos, videos, etc.) and form or participate in social networks. Some of the most popular platforms include Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Skype, Snapchat, YouTube, Tumblr, TikTok, and Pinterest. These are the social media apps parents are generally the most familiar with, and they work to monitor with whom and how our children and teens communicate through these apps. We ask questions about what is being shared and who they are chatting with. We also ask questions about who they are sending photos to and “do they really know” the person they are making plans or having video chats with.

What many parents do not consider when thinking of social media is the variety of online gaming platforms that are rapidly becoming critical social media spaces for many teens during times of social isolation. Online multiplayer games or MMORPGs have been around for decades, and people of all ages have been immersing themselves in the lands of fantasy created by Blizzard Entertainment and Activision. These fantasy worlds allow one to escape from their reality for a little while. There have been interviews posted on YouTube and other sites that explain what these online gaming formats mean to people. They are environments where you are not judged. If you have a disability (physical, emotional, or otherwise), no one has to know that, and no one cares. You can simply be you and talk and communicate with thousands of other people all over the world who are there to “just be themselves” as well. Online multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft, League of Legends, Clash of Clans, Minecraft, Roblox, and The Sims are all rising in popularity as they allow for a sense of connection and allow people to communicate via chat or audio communication platforms while they play.

Discord is another social app that teens often use to communicate while gaming or merely wanting to chat. Discord was initially created for gamers; however, over time, it has morphed into a place where people can get together to explore common interests in subject-specific groups. Consequently, this can be a mix of social media safe and social media challenging for teens when it comes to internet safety. This is mostly because users can create both public and private groups, so how the groups are used can determine the level of safety.

Social Media Benefits

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced most American citizens into their homes. Social distancing guidelines and stay at home orders have resulted in the closure of schools at all levels as well as non-essential businesses. Also, any event that results in a gathering of more than a few people has been canceled along with travel restrictions, the closure of theme parks such as Disney and Universal Studios, and the temporary closure of most hotels through many states. For teens, especially those slated to graduate this year, emotions and feelings of isolation are running high. Many of these teens are watching important and irreplaceable life events being canceled, such as prom, graduation, senior year of sporting events, college tours, and even the SAT’s. Teens are also unable to spend time or socialize with the peers and social groups they have been a part of for many years now.

Consequently, social media has become an even more vital aspect of their social and creative lives during the last few months. Social media outlets are allowing them to finish their academic years (so they don’t have to repeat the school year next year), maintain friendships and relationships with friends and family, share interests and explore “what’s next” once the restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are lifted. Social media, at least for now, has replaced their offline, face-to-face interactions.

Social media allows teens to connect online to online local and global communities based on their collective and shared interests. These many include essential support networks -for example, groups for young people with a disability or medical conditions, teenagers who are same-sex attracted or teens from particular cultural or religious backgrounds. They may also access sites for commenting on and sharing content about specific interests such as games, Television series, movies, music, or hobbies.

Other benefits your teen or adolescent may gain from using social media while social distancing (and after) may include:

  • Digital media literacy-Using and exploring the various social media outlets can help your teen to build the necessary knowledge and skills they need to enjoy online activities and/or gaming while avoiding intentionally or unintentionally participating in risky behavior.
  • Collaborative learning-Social media can be used for online learning, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated disruptions to the academic school year. Your teen can use social media to share educational content in a variety of formal or informal academic settings.
  • Mental health and wellbeing-Our ability to communicate with those we care about has been drastically restricted during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, many people are turning to social media as a means of connecting with extended family and friends whom they aren’t able to connect to physically or face-to-face at this time.

Social media carries with it a lot of benefits, especially during a time when many are feeling very isolated and suffering from feelings of increased anxiety and depression. However, social media and its broad-reaching access and options can offer risks as well – especially now as many teens are doing most of their socializing online during social distancing.

Risks of Social Media

For most things, the good also comes with bad, and social media is not any different. Social media sites, online gaming platforms, and online chat forums can also pose a risk to teens who utilize them. Such risks can include:

  • Questionable content- Social media apps contain a variety of content ranging from memes to photos and everything in between. What one person considers acceptable may not be to someone else. Although apps such as Facebook and Instagram try to limit inappropriate content, they cannot catch everything right away, which means there is a risk of your teen seeing sexual or violent content in social media feeds. Additionally, online gaming affords people the ability to chat and communicate via text chat or virtual chat, such as Discord or TeamSpeak. These are public chat forums that are not necessarily monitored, and this can expose your teen to upsetting content such as mean, aggressive, violent, or sexual comments. Discord, for example, has over one hundred million users and has had its share of safety problems, including at least one serious crime against a teen and a human trafficking ring. In addition, television news articles have referenced recruitment videos being posted on YouTube and other video apps by white supremacy organizations and other concerning groups of people.
  • Uploading or receiving inappropriate content- again, not all social media is monitored in real-time. This means it is possible to send or receive (sometimes unsolicited) material such as photos that are not appropriate or even illegal. Many teens do not know that possessing content such as photos, even if they did not ask for them, can result in legal implications including jail and possibly having to register as a sex offender for the rest of their lives. It is important teens understand just how risky sending and receiving images, and video files can be, especially if they do not know the sender.
  • Personal information-the internet and social media are a vast repository of personal information. Some of this information people intend to share, but other information they may not realize is being shared, such as phone numbers, date of birth, or where they live.
  • Cyberbullying-unfortunately, this is an all too real problem related to social media and online gaming. It is not, however, solely linked to these things. Online bullies can show up in email, chat, and a host of other areas. Bullies can and do take personal information along with photographs and other information about a person and spread them online in ways that can be harmful, humiliating, and violent. There have been a variety of studies in recent years about cyberbullying. These studies indicate just under forty percent of students report experiencing cyberbullying at some point during their academic career. Of those, sixty percent report it had a significant impact on their ability to learn as well as their ability to feel safe at school during the school day. Similar studies show that victims of cyberbullying are more likely to skip school and use alcohol or drugs as compared to those who have not experienced cyberbullying. They are also more likely to experience mental health problems, including depression and anxiety. Finally, and most disconcerting, is that victims of cyberbullying are two times more likely to attempt suicide. Between 2000 and 2018, more than twenty-five teens lost their lives to suicide after being victimized online. Many of their stories became high profile news articles.

Depression - Social Distancing - Hillcrest

Controlling the Risks of Social Media

When you read through the benefits and risks, it indeed seems as though there may be more risks than benefits. For some teens this may be true, however, during these times of social isolation, quarantines, social distancing, and fear, social media is one of the primary (and only) outlets teens, and people of all ages have to communicate with their friends, family, loved ones and social support circles. That said, there are ways to allow your teen to use social media as a mode of communication while still limiting their risk. First and foremost, talk to your teen about social media use. Make sure they understand the risks and how their safety can be compromised online-even if what they are doing seems safe. Make sure they understand their name or image can be associated with things they may not want to be associated with and without their consent. This can include political statements, religious statements, embarrassing or inappropriate photos, or the thoughts and opinions of someone else that your teen may not necessarily share.

It is also valuable to make sure they know how to reduce the risk associated with their personal information. Sure, they can post that amazing photo, but perhaps they may want to do so without sharing additional information about it. There is less risk associated with a photo and their name as opposed to a photo, their name, that it was taken in a specific place while the went hiking on their birthday with their mom, dad, sister, and brother. The second post has exposed their location, date of birth, name, and the names of their immediate family members. This is a hacker or cyberbullies perfect opportunity to take personal information and pass it along to places it does not belong.

Social media and online gaming have been around for decades in one form or another. Over the years, they have advanced in technology and capability. Teens and people of all ages have successfully used social media as a means of communication with family and friends who live far away or with whom we are unable to spend time with for various reasons.

Today, social media is more valuable than ever when it comes to connection and communication. Social distancing guidelines related to COVID-19 have led many to feel isolated and increasingly depressed. Teens are turning to social media as an outlet for communication with friends, teachers, significant others, and family who they are unable to be with physically. Social media can be a lifeline for teens during these abnormal times, but it can also be a risk factor for their safety and mental health. It is essential as parents; we make sure they understand how to protect themselves while venturing online.

We should also be aware about teen depression symptoms as our teens may not necessarily prefer to speak up if they have experienced cyber bullying.