In 2015, Australian influencer Essena O’Neill with over 500,000 Instagram followers made headlines when she abruptly decided to leave all social media — Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, and Snapchat.
Her decision led to a fevered debate: some people thought it was a marketing hoax, others applauded her ability to step away from her large following. In explaining her reasons for going offline, she wrote, “Social media isn’t real. It’s purely contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other…and it consumed me.”
Not everyone has such a massive following, but most social media users have fallen into the rabbit hole — an admittedly time-wasting behavior that involves scrolling through strangers’ accounts, jumping from profile to profile, and inevitably feeling pangs of envy over an Instagram pro’s extended vacation to the Amalfi Coast.
This all-consuming feeling of competition that O’Neill referred to impacts everyone, including young children.
According to a report by the Children’s Commissioner for England, around age 10, children’s use of social media shifts. At a young age, kids use these platforms for creativity and fun (e.g. playing games); as they get older, however, social media becomes an anxiety-inducing method for collecting likes from friends and peers.
As more and more young children are exposed to technology and social media, it’s become clear that keeping kids safe is about more than stranger danger — it involves cultivating healthy and grounded relationships in these online environments.
A key way to foster positive behavior is to identify the best-case scenario: how do you want your children to benefit from going online today? Ideally, these online platforms should give kids an opportunity to explore their hobbies, connect with friends, play mind-expanding games, and discover new interests.
But there are roadblocks that make it difficult for parents to find a like-minded (and safe!) online community for their kids; the most pressing is the lack of apps that cater to children who are old enough to read and write, but too young for social media’s inherent culture of social validation.
Finding the right online platform for a specific age is key to keeping kids positively engaged — they don’t need to be sucked into the affirmation-driven world of social media. Instead, the internet should be used to cultivate interests.
Have a little astronaut on your hands? Introduce them to NASA Space Place.
Are animals a source of endless fascination in your house? Find a live-cam feed for them to watch.
Gently steering kids away from the mega-popular apps and influencers will help them identify their own interests, whether it be motocross or ballet, soccer or cooking.
The right websites and apps don’t just speak to children — they allow children to speak. And giving kids the freedom to express themselves can lead to positive conversations about the internet and social media, which ultimately helps them to value interaction and information over likes and comments.
Furthermore, cultivating a sense of kinship and acknowledging the power of words is key to curbing negative online behavior, like bullying.
When young children learn to recognize the difference between sharing creative content and seeking validation, they develop a healthy perspective on social media, which will inform their online decisions for years to come.
Sean Herman is the Founder of Kinzoo and the author of “Screen Captured.”