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Rikki Schlott: Parents have had a wake-up call about kids and tech. Here's advice from a Gen Z-er

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When whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before a bipartisan senate committee about Facebook’s unethical conduct last week one concern weighed heaviest on everyone’s minds: the young. “I am here today because I believe Facebook’s products harm children,” Haugen proclaimed. 

Outrage has erupted over revelations that the company possessed research confirming links between social media and a crisis of youth mental health. Nonetheless, Facebook leadership prioritized profit over people, even going as far as to release plans for an Instagram for kids despite the concerning data. 

With unprecedented technologies come unprecedented consequences. Numerous studies and meta-analyses have uncovered associations between social media use and spikes in depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide among adolescents. 

It’s obvious that we have a societal obligation to protect our children but many parents feel helpless in doing so. “Very rarely do we have one of these generational shifts where the generation that leads… has such a different set of experiences that they don’t have the context to support their children,” Haugen testified. 

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Generation Z’s digital fluency can seem quite opaque from the outside, but as a 21-year-old, I know the experience firsthand. I’ve spent ten of my twenty-one years of life on Instagram and struggled with tech addiction myself. I’ve also seen the ugly underbelly of social media’s impact on developing and delicate minds.  

As I come of age, I feel a moral imperative to speak up before more children get sucked into that same virtual vortex. My lived experience may help shed light on what it’s like growing up under the pressures of the digital age.  

FILE – Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing entitled 'Protecting Kids Online: Testimony from a Facebook Whistleblower' on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Oct. 05, 2021 in Washington, DC. 

FILE – Former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen testifies during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing entitled ‘Protecting Kids Online: Testimony from a Facebook Whistleblower’ on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Oct. 05, 2021 in Washington, DC. 
(POOL via CNP/INSTARimages/Cover Images)

Parents are facing an unprecedented and multifaceted problem without any quick fixes. Haugen spoke to that complexity last week, “They say just take your kid’s phone away, but the reality is that these issues are a lot more complicated than that.” 

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Indeed, being a tyrannical luddite and banning devices altogether is more likely to breed resentment than anything else. Technology isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. As we increasingly connect in the virtual realm, digital literacy will be critical to both personal and professional success. 

As I come of age, I feel a moral imperative to speak up before more children get sucked into the virtual vortex. My lived experience may help shed light on what it’s like growing up under the pressures of the digital age.  

Here are three things parents need to focus on:  

1. Limit screen time. Set aside a time for dialogue. Engage your children in setting a cap on tech use. Include them in the process, and explain why. iPhone settings allow you to set limits for app use and schedule time away from the screen. Limitations should be the product of compromise and dialogue in order to arm children with the skills to self-regulate and interact with devices mindfully.

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2. Stave off social media for as long as possible. Social media is an important tool for connecting with friends in the digital age, but picking the right time to allow your child to join is critical. Listen to their desires and requests, but don’t be afraid to put your foot down. The older they are when they venture into the digital realm, the greater their maturity and wisdom will be.

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Most of my fellow Gen-Zers say they joined social media because it seemed like all of their peers were there. Oftentimes a domino effect is set off when one friend joins a new platform. 

Fear of missing out applies to the digital age, too.

Journalist and NYU student Rikki Schlott

Journalist and NYU student Rikki Schlott

 It may be worth having conversations with their friends’ parents and coordinating access to help thwart the social pressure to plug in.

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3. Break the silence, even if it means having uncomfortable conversations. By far the stickiest problem parents need to contend with is the emotional pressure of hyper-connectivity, which seems to fall disproportionately on young girls. Haugen revealed that even Facebook’s own research shows Instagram makes body image worse for one in three of them. 

Insecurity and the pursuit of social acceptance are hallmarks of adolescence, but they’ve been inflamed by social media. Followers and likes have made self-comparison and self-worth numerically quantifiable. Newsfeeds are filled with the most beautiful and exciting snippets of everyone else’s lives. Filters and photoshop have made beauty standards not just unrealistic but entirely unreal.

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It’s an unprecedented bombardment of unattainability, and most girls contend with this challenge alone. Haugen noted on Tuesday, “Facebook’s own research says kids today feel they are struggling alone with these issues because their parents can’t guide them.” And it’s that isolation that’s fueling a silent mental health crisis.

Insecurity and the pursuit of social acceptance are hallmarks of adolescence, but they’ve been inflamed by social media. 

Authentic conversation, however uncomfortable it may be, is the only way to break the silence. Talk about beauty standards and photoshop. Discuss projection versus reality. And, most importantly, listen. You might not always quite understand, but the best thing you can do is create an avenue through which your child feels heard and not judged.

My sub-generation was the test case for how social media impacts young minds, and the outcomes were dire. While the whistleblower revelations from this month may be disheartening, they can also be empowering.  

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The callousness of Silicon Valley and the dangers of technology are no longer a mystery. Parents have more data and a clearer picture of the challenge at hand. 

Now, let’s take back control. It’s time we help our kids to reclaim their childhood from the grips of Big Tech. 

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