COVID-19, youth and social media: is it time for a reset?


COVID-19, youth and social media: is it time for a reset?

What is going on with kids and social media during COVID-19? It seems to be a mixed picture: some very hopeful changes, and still very serious risks parents need to be aware of.

On my daily walk this morning I saw a dad taking his toddler for a ride in his carrier. A bit later a teenager was walking his dog. It’s really encouraging to see how COVID-19 is getting people out more. Now here is the downside: the toddler had a tablet on his lap, and the teen was wearing a large headset and checking his cell phone.

With COVID-19 and the self-quarantine imposed on families, our lives and habits are being turned upside down and it's an opportunity to rethink the place of screen time and social media activities in our kids’ lives.

Collin Kartchner has been a fierce advocate for change in this area since he realized how destructive it could be. When a friend shared the story of her daughter’s suicide and the role social media had played in it, Kartchner began a mission to warn parents, students and teachers of the dangerous ways social media and cell phones were impacting youth in our country. In the past two years, he has talked to thousands of people throughout the country and before COVID-19 he was booked with talks until March 2022.

A team of committed San Antonio moms had invited him to do a three-day tour in San Antonio at the end of March this year and they had managed to organize 10 presentations at local schools for him. Unfortunately it didn’t happen with the shelter in place measures, but the reality and the need for information is still there and we encourage all parents to watch his TED Talk here.

I was curious to read what Kartchner is saying right now and found a fun to watch compilation of photos and tiktok videos on his popular Instagram account. It showed:

  • Kids playing outside, riding bikes, building forts, even “swinging into a tent” in their backyards
  • Stores shelves emptied of board games, children’s books and bikes
  • Kids building forts out of large cardboard boxes
  • Kids baking, sewing, building puzzles, playing Uno and other board games
  • Kids being creative (moms too, with a sign one mom put inside the fridge: “You’re not hungry, you’re just bored, so shut the d…n door”)
  • Kids fishing, digging, jamming on musical instruments
  • Siblings having fun together
  • Dads playing dangerous games with their boys

As you can see, it’s a celebration of non-screen time for our kids and a renewal of good old-fashion fun activities.  A lot of this is happening all over and it’s powerful. A teen writes: “This pandemic is a miracle because it’s the first time in a while that I have seen people riding bikes with their families and going out and doing chalk or doing puzzles or board games. It’s honestly the best feeling to see families be families again.” Another writes: “How beautiful it is to walk outside without the fear of forgetting your phone and spending the countless of your (life) not behind a phone but with the people you love.”

Kartchner adds: “More family time, more meals at the dinner table, more families laughing and playing at parks, less focus on accumulating stuff at the expense of our relationships. And not more handing kids a screen to raise them.” And he encourages all of us to keep it this way and not go back to the old way. It’s time for a reset.

In a very different but related context, last week I attended a conference call for school counselors organized by Region 20 and heard a presentation by Susan Burkholder, the Community Engagement Director at Ransomed Life, a local nonprofit dedicated to helping sexually exploited girls.

Burkholder described a scary scenario which is not uncommon: a girl and her boyfriend are apart because of COVID-19. He begs her for sexually explicit pictures of herself. She submits to his demand. Later they break up, and he shares the photos on social media out of spite. The photos circulate on the web and a predator catches finds them. The predator reaches out to the girl and threatens to expose her (and copy her mother) if she doesn’t comply with his requests. That’s how the tragic circle of blackmail and exploitation of girls happens, and all this unbeknownst to their parents.

As we’ve written on this website, there are other social media or online risks for teens like bullying, depression from comparing each other with the idealized images of other they see online, and access to pornographic content.

Burkholder has very specific recommendations for parents:

  • Set up effective online filters within your home internet systems
  • Limit the number of social media channels your kids can use to only one and know the password so that you can monitor their activities
  • Limit the time and place cell phone can be used
  • Have a family computer in an area that all can see

Ransomed Lives offer a prevention program which includes Lures and Lies, a weekly webinar for students to learn about the dangers and trapping of social media even now. They also organized a weekly zoom meeting for parents and community members called Human Trafficking and On-line Threats (click on the day of the week in the calendar to register).

I also recognize that this new situation is putting pressure on parents who either are working from home or trying to find a new job while their children are home with them. The temptation to lallow a screen to entertain them is powerful. After all, many kids can be done with school work in two or three hours. But these are not normal times. This is an opportunity set clear boundaries about social media and screen time, maybe help them schedule their day, and then trust that their own creativity and ability to use their time well will prevail.

COVID-19 is creating challenges we have never experienced, however, it may also be creating an opportunity to address other risks our kids face. If we can make changes now, we'll all be in a better place when this pandemic passes.