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Social Media Red Flags

Kids are using media more than ever. The average child between the ages of 8 and 18 spends more than 60 hours per week with media and technology — much of that time is on social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Discord and Snapchat.  

A 2021 Common Sense Media report found 38% of tweens were using social media that year, up from 31% in 2019. About one in five said they use social media daily, an increase from 5% two years prior.

As for teens, 84% of them said they are using social media and they were spending about an hour and a half a day on it, compared to an hour and 10 minutes in 2019.

Not surprisingly, media use has grown faster since the start of the pandemic — over a two-year period — than it had over the previous four years, according to Jim Steyer, Common Sense founder and CEO. 

“But this report goes a few steps further by exploring the content behind those numbers: how kids are spending that time, and how their engagement with media makes them feel. And that is where the findings become a lot more nuanced,” he said. 

According to the report’s author, initiation into social media is trending younger (at a relatively modest rate thus far), and while the time devoted to social media among teens may be increasing, enjoyment is not.

For example, 84% of teens surveyed said they use social media, but only 34% of them said they enjoy social media “a lot.” 

“And social media use is going up among tweens, a group who are technically not supposed to be using social media in the first place,” Steyer said.

It’s this group who were more likely to say they enjoyed using social media than they did in 2019.

While face-to-face social skills are very important, social media can strengthen relationships, and it can be used to do good — reach out to volunteer, create community and be inclusive. “During the pandemic, social media has been an especially important way for tweens, teens, and adults to stay in touch,” said Michael Robb, senior researcher at Common Sense.

There has been growing concern from some experts about the possible negative impact of social media on young peoples’ mental health, but other researchers have pointed to possible beneficial impacts, especially during the pandemic, he said.

In fact, research has found that for a majority of teens (those who are not vulnerable), social media makes them feel better, not worse, about themselves.

But let’s be realistic. We are acutely aware that all of us, including our children, are faced with an overwhelming amount of digital “noise” on social media. For kids, that digital overload shows up in a number of ways and affects how children act, feel, behave and think or process information.

To help parents and caregivers navigate the social media environment, Common Sense has created a list of social media red flags that parents should know about: 

Age-inappropriate content examples: Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat

Friends can share explicit stuff via messaging (for example, sexting), but the bigger concern is whether an app features a lot of user-generated content that isn’t appropriate to your kid’s age. Your teen may not even need to follow users who are posting explicit stuff to come across it.

Public default setting examples: Instagram, TikTok, Twitter

Many apps allow a user to have a public or private profile, only shared with friends; however, some apps are public by default, which means that a kid’s name, picture, and posts are available to everyone.

Location tracking and sharing examples: Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram

Wherever you go, there you are — and your social media apps know it. Though you may only indicate a city or neighborhood in a profile, allowing location identification often means that you’re tracked within a city block, and your posts can include your location.

Real-time video streaming examples: Instagram, Twitch

Live streaming is just that — live — so it’s very easy to share something you didn’t mean to. Kids may use these apps in private (such as in their bedrooms) and inadvertently share personal information without knowing exactly who is watching. Though they may seem temporary, embarrassing or mean moments are easily captured and shared later.

Ads and in-app purchase examples: Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat

Free apps have to get paid somehow, and many developers do it through advertising and providing purchase opportunities. Some track what you buy and show you targeted ads, and some have targeted chats with businesses, which means your kid is invited into a chat with someone trying to sell a product.

Temporary pictures and videos examples: Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook Messenger

Nothing shared between devices is truly temporary, even when an app builds its whole marketing around it. Compromising pictures and texts get kids in real trouble because they believe what they’re sending is private and will disappear.

Subpar reporting tools examples: Instagram, Twitter, Roblox 

Most apps have a system for reporting abuse or violations of the terms of use — but not all do. And even if they do, it doesn’t mean they work effectively. The level of moderation also varies widely. Some apps monitor posts or use automated filters to flag content.

Anonymity examples: Yolo, Whisper, Lipsi

On anonymous sites, people feel that their comments are consequence-free. Also, though kids may feel safe enough to share sensitive or painful things they might not otherwise, they often don’t get the necessary support or help — and may get attacked.

Random video chat/Meet new friends examples: HOLLA: live random video chat, Monkey, ChatLive

Any app that is inviting kids to meet people is facilitating chats with strangers in some way. In most cases this type of app likely has a lot of sexual content and adults trying to hook up.

For more tips and helpful information, visit commonsensemedia.org/blog

Tips on monitoring Social Media

Make sure to pay attention and learn about your child’s “online” friends.

If your child already is feeling isolated or is avoiding something by being online, it probably means they’re already struggling, so a sensitive approach is usually best:

  • It might seem best to take away devices if a kid’s use feels out of control and they’ve given up on things they used to love, but if they’re using digital media as an escape and lifeline, it could make things worse.
  • Before taking drastic measures around devices, try to identify the underlying causes of isolation: Is this a familiar pattern with your kid because social interaction has always been hard? Has there been a major life stressor? Do you know why your kid has retreated?
  • Are they using a game or social media as a temporary escape from difficult circumstances? Within limits, this can actually be helpful if it’s contained and temporary.
  • If they won’t talk to you about what’s going on, it’s probably time to get outside help.

Short of banning devices, setting some limits around when and where your kid can use them will help contain how much time they’re spending online.

  • Eating dinner together as a family as much as possible is proven to decrease risks of negative outcomes, like substance abuse, so have device-free dinners.
  • Teens are notorious for not getting enough sleep, which can significantly impact their mental health, so keeping devices out of bedrooms helps set limits naturally.

If you suspect your kid is fostering online relationships with strangers, find out more:

  • Are they just chatting in interest-based forums?
  • Is there someone they consider special who they feel close to? If so, they may feel very proprietary about that person.
  • Though you want to keep your kid safe, it’s also important to tread lightly if you think your kid feels this person is their only friend.
  • Cutting off all contact in anger or fear might trigger extreme behavior, so staying calm, empathic, and reasonable will help tap into underlying feelings instead of making the online relationship something to defend.

Approach media balance as a family instead of targeting one kid — even if that kid is the only one struggling.


Ilana Lowery is the Arizona director for the nonprofit Common Sense Media. She can be reached at ilowery@commonsense.org

Ilana Loweryhttp://commonsense.org
Ilana Lowery is the Arizona director for Common Sense Media. She can be reached at ilowery@commonsense.org.

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