Protecting teens online


Among the many issues consuming a lot of bandwidth in the United States these days is that of protecting teens from harm online. The problem of online harassment, predators targeting minors, and the like, has become increasingly prevalent in the past decade, with studies showing that teenagers are being exposed to more and more toxic and dangerous content than ever before.

The reactions to this problem have varied. Some states in the U.S. have taken an active role with laws regulating the responsibility of social media platforms, such as a law in Texas requiring social media platforms to provide parents with the ability to change their children’s social media settings, restrict online transactions, and set limits on the amount of time they can spend online.

The U.S. Senate is proposing similar federal legislation. Many of the major platforms, including Meta, TikTok, and X (formerly known as Twitter) have launched programs allowing parents to control their children’s online activity.

There is, however, a significant problem in all this. Few parents are taking advantage of the power to control their children online. By the end of 2022, for example, it was found that fewer than ten percent of teens on Instagram (owned by Meta) had enabled the parental control settings on their accounts, and of those who did, only a single digit percentage of parents had actually adjusted their children’s settings.

There have been a number of reasons given to explain this lack of parental participation in protecting their own children online. It’s too hard to do, parents don’t have the technical skill or time, or it causes conflicts within families.

This has thrown the ball back into the social media platforms’ courts, with many parents and legislators taking the view that they should assume responsibility for protecting our children when they’re on the sites.

There’s a certain validity to this. If you’re the proprietor of a venue, you do have the responsibility to protect your clients and customers. Platforms, for example, should take a more active role in banning certain information and applications, and identifying and removing bad actors from their platforms. Government should have clear, enforceable, and realistic legislation governing these companies. But, parents don’t get a free pass.

The ultimate responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of children rests with the parents of those children. The parent who is unwilling to take the necessary steps to protect their children (including acquiring the knowledge to enable that protection) is shirking parental responsibility.

Allowing children unfettered access to platforms (including buying them the expensive phones and computers they use to access them), and setting a bad example by being addicted to tech devices themselves, is also something that parents cannot pass the buck on.

Being a parent is hard work. There is no instruction book to help guide new parents. But there is some good advice for all parents, something my grandmother taught me when I was a teenager; ‘Train up a child in the way he (or she) should go, and when he (she) is old he (she) will not depart from it.’ | NWI