Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University, writes about issues affecting women and social media. Her book “Over the Influence: Why Social Media Is Toxic for Women and Girls — And How We Can Take It Back” will be published by Alcove Press on March 5, 2024. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook and X. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
With social networks flooded with content about atrocities happening in Israel and Gaza, schools around the world are warning parents about what their children might be seeing on social media. Some are calling for parents to remove social media apps, including Instagram and TikTok, from children’s phones, so they don’t see unspeakable war content. They’re right. If you’re a parent of a kid who is in high school or younger, you should take away these apps right now.
Here’s why. The accounts of unthinkable brutality that are coming out of the Middle East are simply not appropriate content for children, even those who understandably want to know the horrific truths about what’s happening in the world, especially if they are connected to those suffering in the conflict. But once a kid watches a person being violently killed on a social media video, whether or not it’s real, we can’t help them unsee it — but we can expect them to be deeply traumatized by it (as many adults would be), especially if they have family living in the region.
Unfortunately, if a teenager has a typical account on a mainstream social network there generally isn’t a way for us to prevent them from being exposed to this content — or other age-inappropriate posts.
Representatives for Instagram, TikTok and X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, didn’t immediately respond to CNN’s requests for comment about the warnings that are being issued by schools. But, if anything, social networks might, at least according to their business models, be expected to proactively show users these kinds of posts.
“Getting a user outraged, anxious, or afraid is a powerful way to increase engagement,” Roger McNamee, one of Facebook’s first investors, writes in “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.” “Anxious and fearful users check the site more frequently. Outraged users share more content to let other people know what they should also be outraged about. Best of all from Facebook’s perspective, outraged or fearful users in an emotionally hijacked state become more reactive to further emotionally charged content.”
What’s more, there are concerns that terrorists will wage psychological warfare on social media through posts deliberately designed to inflame tensions.
These kinds of posts simply aren’t a good source of information about what’s happening in the world — for anyone. And, of course, on a TikTok video, it’s often hard to identify misinformation or engage in thoughtful dialogue on deeply complicated issues.
So, instead, parents of older children — or younger kids who are aware of what’s happening or whose families are impacted by the war — should have two-way conversations with children about what’s going on and check in on how they’re feeling and what concerns they may have. This may not be pretty (or even seem doable), but at least for now, parents also need to take away kids’ phones long enough to remove social media apps and ensure that kids don’t re-install them.
It doesn’t have to be forever, and goodness knows it won’t be easy. To make the best of it, however, parents should use the opportunity to have conversations with kids about why spending too much time on social apps isn’t good for us anyway. Taking away kids’ social networks also means it’s on parents to give kids other healthy things to do — such as more time in person with their friends and more family activities that everyone enjoys, like trips to parks and museums.
As I’ve said before, it’s a huge myth that kids want to spend all their time on social media. As researcher danah boyd writes in “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” they’d rather hang with their friends in person — but their parents often don’t let them. That needs to change.
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Best of all, if parents take away kids’ social networks en masse right now, I bet it will prompt social media companies to create better settings to prevent kids from viewing inappropriate material in the future.
The only way to prevent kids from seeing the unspeakable content circulating on social media about the war in Israel and Gaza is to remove their apps. Kids should be learning about what’s happening from their parents or reliable sources of information — not from TikTok and Instagram. This is also an opportunity to discuss how to find credible information and when we should be skeptical of what we see — as well as why we should all try to avoid content that could be harmful to us or other people.
But parents can make the most of these needed hiatuses by using the opportunity to discuss how social media affects us and finding other healthy activities for kids. And, if lots of parents do this, it’s likely to prompt social networks to get more sophisticated about blocking content that’s inappropriate for kids. That would be a development we could all like.