I’m a Cyberpsychologist — Here’s Three Tips to Keep Your Child Safe on Social Media

This month, government representatives called for stricter controls around social media age limits for children in Ireland.

Fine Gael TD Ciaran Cannon claims social media companies need to increase their account age limits to 16 in order to comply with the digital consent age, and Minister for Education Norma Foley has requested more robust measures around age verification.

Social media usage amongst children and pre-teens is on the rise, which has sparked concerns over exposure to harmful content, cyberbullying, and excessive screen time.

Sersha, which provides social media safety training to pre-teens, recently discovered that three-quarters (74.3%) of parents allow their children to access more than two devices, such as their own smartphones and tablets. A separate study from CyberSafe Kids found that the majority (84%) of children under the age of 12 have their own social media or instant messaging accounts.

Cyberpsychologist and Founder of Sersha Ruth Guest believes that building social media literacy and providing social media education to pre-teen children is the best approach to keeping them safe online.

She adds: “There are currently 5.3 billion internet users today, and a growing number of these are children, so we can no longer avoid the issue of their safety. We must prioritise providing education to these younger users now, and not avoid it or prolong it until they reach age 16.”

Guest has provided three tips for parents in light of recent social media safety concerns:

1. Be wary of algorithms

“Designed to keep your child hooked, algorithms are the backbone of social media platforms and the drug that keeps users coming back for more.

Once your child interacts with a post on one topic, the algorithm will serve them a subsequent stream of pictures and videos related to this topic because it believes that’s what they want to see.

For example, let’s say you have a prepubescent boy who, on Instagram, sees a picture of a bodybuilder and aspires to have his physique and lifestyle. Within days, or even hours, of liking this post, his feed will become populated with content related to this gym culture — anything from diet advice to posts about steroid usage.

In fact, having spoken with one parent recently, she recounted a story where her 9-year-old asked: ‘Mum, why can’t I have a six-pack like that?’

The same applies to content that features extreme political opinions or promotes a specific worldview or lifestyle. Children tend to be more impressionable and easily influenced, so parents must be wary of how ‘echo chambers’ can quickly form on social media and pay close attention to the content and accounts their child is engaging with to prevent low self-esteem or extreme beliefs.”

2. Strike a healthy balance with offline activities

“Social media and the virtual world are, to a degree, a reflection of our lives in the real world. However, there have been countless studies on how people represent (and misrepresent) themselves when they are online. For parents, it’s important to teach kids that it’s all about context.

On ‘aspirational’ apps, such as Instagram, people tend to portray their ‘ideal self’ and keep their ‘authentic self’ exclusive to a smaller in-circle via second accounts (or ‘finstas). On TikTok, users may showcase a ‘fun self’ and not take themselves as seriously.

What children need to know is that a photograph, video, or tweet is merely a snapshot into someone’s life — it does not provide a full picture into their life, which 9 times out of 10, isn’t perfect.

That’s why it’s important to talk to them about using social media in a positive and mindful way, celebrating their own achievements and strengths, and taking healthy breaks when they need to. It’s all about finding a healthy balance between online and offline activities and being aware of how social media influences their emotions and well-being.”

3. Teach how to spot (and avoid) misinformation

“Fake news is all around us on social media, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to establish whether content is credible or not, even for adults.

With several important elections due to take place in world politics this year and new technologies (such as AI deep fakes) making matters even more challenging, it’s important to have open conversations with your children about the risks of consuming fake news while browsing social media.

As a parent, this starts with developing your own knowledge of fake news online and the best way to identify and avoid it. Some social media companies have attempted to address this by rolling out fact-checking features, such as ‘community notes’.

Regularly auditing your child’s social feeds (including explore pages, ‘fyp’s, and following lists) is essential, to lower their risk of exposure to deceitful or harmful content.”