Those of us of a certain age love talking about how good it is that we didn’t have social media when we were younger, convinced that we would’ve written or done something that’d come back to haunt us later, as we often see happen with folks born after 1990 – though the irony of many of my peers worried about a Freaknik documentary that hasn’t even been shot yet is not lost on me.
Many of us have still managed to become addicted to social media at our big ages. So, imagine what it’s like for children with undeveloped prefrontal cortexes to manage its manifold pitfalls. Indeed, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a 19-page advisory Tuesday (May 23) warning us of the detrimental effects of social media on young people.
“There are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents,” Murthy wrote.
That harm takes the form of social media replacing sleep, exercise and schoolwork; constant consumption of content that promotes self-harm and cyberbullying, among other things. Researchers have made a direct link to social media and the mental health crisis plaguing all teenagers.
Murthy’s wet blanket came in the same week that Montana’s senate banned TikTok – currently the buzziest social media site this side of the pond – in the entire state, prompting a lawsuit from the company on the grounds of violating constitutional free speech.
Sensible parents of all races should be concerned about their kids’ exposure to social media. But Black parents should be especially concerned: a 2017 survey revealed that Black teenagers are more active on popular social media platforms than any other group.
If this still holds true today, the corollary is Black youth are in more danger from social media’s ill effects than others. It’s essentially taking the existing harms and tacking on garden variety racism and the threat of widening a long-standing achievement gap.
Even Murthy admits that research on the long-term effects of social media overexposure is still inchoate. But we know there’s been a rise in suicidal ideation among all teenagers and that Black youth have seen the fastest-growing suicide rates of any ethnic group in the last two decades. Given this, they’re still less likely to receive the help they need…well because – racism.
There’s no bottling social media back up – just like our elders couldn’t keep us away from music with parental advisory stickers, it’ll be nigh impossible to keep children away from social media completely. The goal instead should be to work toward shielding Black kids from the negative aspects (the best we can) while focusing on its positives.
And yes…there are several positives to social media. Black Twitter is always good for a feel-good meme or three, but we’ve seen many examples of social media being used to amplify racism that would otherwise remain covert, as was the case earlier this month when a white teacher in Missouri was sent applying to UPS because a student filmed him using the N-word.
On a larger scale, we’ve seen social media leveraged as an engine for positive change, as with the Black Lives Matter movement and the collective outrage that led to an unprecedented response of civil disobedience in reaction the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
Parents.com pressed popular social media outlets in 2022 to reveal what they’re doing to protect Black youth. Some provided answers that sound good, but I’m entirely too cynical to trust the platforms to care about Black kids – the onus is on us, the community, to keep them safe.
There are several articles on the internet with lists on how to protect your children from social media. Here’s mine:
1. Limitations! The first seems the most obvious: Limit screen time for your child across the board; folks with academic degrees on the topic insist this is essential for numerous reasons. I see how easy it is for parents to get slivers of peace by sticking a screen in front of their children, but it doesn’t have to be a go-to. As a kid, I was married to books – they’ll never go out of style and are far cheaper than an iPad.
2. Remind them that that social media is not reality: Dealing with bullying is a perennial parenting issue. Except now, bullies take their aggression to screens, which is easier and safer than pushing a small kid to the ground. It’s challenging to convey to children who have never experienced life without social media that it’s not a real place, but a parent can at least attempt to reinforce that idiots popping off behind their screens will never matter in the grand scheme. My pops drove this home to me when I was young – it helped.
3. Force them to be sociable. In real life.: Remember how we actually stepped outdoors to play with our friends back in the day? Big wheels, bicycles and skateboards? The block may never be full of kids goofing around anymore, but you and other like-minded parents can lead the charge by making your kids engage in recreational activities that don’t involve screens. The bonds they create with the kids in their swimming and dance classes will help to reinforce #2.
4. School them on racism: There’s no greater contemporary conduit for racism – casual and otherwise – than social media and the internet at large. It’s virtually inescapable, so breaking down racism and white supremacy to their children at an early age should be imperative for Black parents raising Black kids in America. As with many things, creating context and understanding might help mitigate its negative effects. It sounds awful to cut through a child’s innocence with the reality of the world, but what choice do we really have?
Dustin J. Seibert is a native Detroiter living in Chicago. Miraculously, people have paid him to be aggressively light-skinned via a computer keyboard for nearly two decades. He loves his own mama slightly more than he loves music and exercises every day only so his French fry intake doesn’t catch up to him. Find him at wafflecolored.com.
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