Your child spends a lot of time on social media. You’ve heard about the dangers, but you monitor what she’s doing online and you watch for warning signs that may indicate a problem, such as sudden changes in behavior or poor performance at school. Besides, she has thousands of followers, so at least she’s popular, right?
Social Media and Fake Friends
Now, there are some exceptions: some users only have one social media account and they keep it strictly private for use among their actual family members and close friends. This, however, is rare, particularly among teenagers.
More often, we have dozens (or hundreds) of acquaintances with whom we share access to social media profiles. These are the friends of friends we met at a wedding, the co-workers we greet in passing, and the people we knew in middle school.
Not only that, we follow people we don’t even know in real life: sometimes these are famous professionals, sometimes it’s a handsome stranger or someone who seems funny based on the posts she shares in a social media group you both belong to. Maybe you connected via a group because you’re both parents or lacrosse players or gardeners. Maybe you like that he likes your posts, so you return the favor.
Some of these people probably are true friends. Some may become true friends (even in real life!) after you get to know each other online. But most are just faces on the screen: they know nothing about you aside from what you choose to share on your profile.
Jay Baer wrote this article after the death of online personality Trey Pennington. He was “friends” with Pennington, but upon his death, Baer realized he didn’t really know him at all. “Social media forces upon us a feeling of intimacy and closeness that doesn’t actually exist,” he wrote.
“As my own networks in social media have gotten larger, I’ve ended up talking about my personal life less, because a large percentage of that group don’t know me, or my wife, or my kids, or my town, or my interests. I don’t want to bore people with the inanities of the everyday.”
That is one adult perspective and explanation for why our social media profiles look so little like our real lives. But what about the kids?
Your Kids and Social Media
This article says we’re turning into a fake generation thanks to social media. We allow people we don’t like (that frenemy from high school, that passive-aggressive co-worker) to remain on our friends list. We comment positively on their photos and status updates while we silently curse them. They return the favor.
Meanwhile, kids and adults alike try to paint a picture of an ideal life. We share our highlight reels: vacations, fancy meals, and loads of laughter while ignoring the reality of dirty dishes and loneliness, for example. Your kids may do this without realizing it; they may also fail to realize everyone else is doing it, too.
How to Talk With Your Kids About the Shallowness of Social Media
The time to talk with your kids is now. Don’t wait until they’re older. If they’re using social media, they’re old enough to have these discussions. Create an environment that encourages open dialogue: ask your kids about their social media lives the way you would ask them about school. Bring up the topics you see in the news. Inquire about new apps and means of communication. And don’t forget to touch on these important topics to help your kids understand just how shallow and fake social media can be:
- Influencers: Kids need to understand that many popular Instagram stars are paid to promote certain products, or they receive the products for free in exchange for posting about them. Some of these influencers are responsible enough to promote only products they actually use and believe in; others are not. A naturally thin model may claim, for example, that a certain product is responsible for her physique, when in fact she may not actually use it at all. Make sure your children understand this and tell them to look for hashtags like #sponsored, #ad, or #promotion, keeping in mind that not all influencers may be disclosing their affiliations the way they are legally required to do.
- Photo Retouching: There are dozens of apps (and filters!) that make photo retouching a breeze. Kids can easily remove blemishes or make themselves look thinner with a couple of clicks. We’re so accustomed to seeing these retouched photos; it’s easy for a child to look at his own real photo and feel like he doesn’t measure up.
- Buying Followers and Likes: If you see a user with thousands of followers but only a few likes per post, there’s a good chance those followers were purchased. Yes, you can do that.
- Fake Accounts: Lots of kids (and adults) start fake accounts where they can pretend to be someone else, or where they can share feelings they’re not comfortable sharing on their real page. They may seek advice (or attention) via these fake accounts. Even if your child doesn’t have a fake profile, she may be following several of them. This is why if you use a monitoring app that requires you to have your child’s password you just may be monitoring only the accounts they want you to know about.
- Fake News: Teach your kids to identify fake news sites and made-up stories. FactCheck.org has great tips: read beyond the provocative headline, check the source, check the author, and run the story by Snopes or FactCheck. If a headline claims that watching a video will change your life, or that you won’t believe what so-and-so did, it’s probably little more than click-bait.
- Why Is Someone Sharing This?: This article brings up a good point: “…social sharing of information is often not actually about sharing information. It’s about the sharer letting everyone know that they are knowledgeable or right-thinking or caring.” Many people don’t even read articles before they share them. Teach your kids to read (and think!) before they share so they don’t spread false information and encourage them to examine their own motives for sharing something.
If you don’t feel like your child is ready for social media, you can always block those apps on your child’s device using trustworthy parental controls. Or maybe you prefer he limit his attention to one or two sites; in that case, simply block the rest. You can also limit the amount of time she spends online by disabling internet access during certain times of the day; less time online limits your child’s exposure to the artificial world of social media and helps keep her perspective in check.