Among all the challenges that come with raising children, many Canadian parents nowadays are faced with a more complex modern issue: social media use.
To a certain degree, the damaging effect social media can have – particularly on young people – is nothing new. But in the decades since the introduction of MySpace and the eventual rise of Facebook and Instagram, there are indications it’s getting worse.
A recent deep dive into Facebook’s operations, by the Wall Street Journal, revealed the company is well aware of its platforms’ negative influences on the mental health of users – a sizable percentage of those being young ones.
Despite the negative effects coming into clearer focus, the entrenchment of social media in the day-to-day lives of Canadians is nearly inescapable. Global News is unravelling the many facets of influence these platforms have — both offline and on.
Four Canadian parents spoke to Global News and detailed how social media is impacting their household, and hope their experiences help others when it comes to parenting in the social media age.
'Another world' you have to keep in mind
Karen Dancy has rules for her 15- and 13-year-old sons when it comes to social media use.
The 50-year-old Brampton, Ont., resident and her husband have instilled in them not to share any personal information on applications, to use fake names, and to avoid saying or doing anything that may come back to haunt them.
Dancy is confident her boys follow those rules – but parenting in the social-media age comes with stress, be it from wondering how her children are behaving on social media to worrying if they will end up in a viral post that will have a negative impact on their lives.
“It’s almost like another world that you have to kind of keep in mind,” Dancy told Global News.
“Before, you just had to grow up and worry about what your friends thought, and now you’re thinking, ‘What’s out there? What do people think of me?’”
Dancy’s comments ring true for Joseph DeSouza. When he was growing up, he spent the majority of his free time outside with friends, be it bike riding or playing games.
Now, the 52-year-old Schomberg, Ont., resident is a father of four, a 15-year-old girl and three boys who are 11, seven and five.
While he said his two youngest children enjoy similar activities, it’s different for his others.
“If you gave them the phone, they would play on it the whole day,” he said.
“It’s the fault of a parent like me who can’t get them to do that (outdoor activities) because they have other fun things to do. They don’t want to disconnect from their friends for like three hours, right?”
‘I feel like I have no control over this’
Both parents worry over their children’s social media use, be it from spending too much time on devices or interacting with others online.
Dancy’s children, who use applications like Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, Discord, Instagram and TikTok, are more connected to the world than she was at their age, she said.
For example, when there was a lockdown at their school last year, Dancy said her children were immediately in tune with what was going on, scouring Twitter for the latest news and checking for updates.
“There’s an instant connection to outside news, which obviously didn’t exist when I was younger,” she said.
“They can find things, they can also find bad things and (I) worry about something that they do: will it get out there in the real world, and will it come back to haunt them?”
When it comes to interactions, Dancy said her boys are only allowed to be online friends with people they actually know, as they don’t want them engaging with strangers online.
She also said her youngest child is restricted to using the computer on the main floor of their home, so that they can monitor what he’s doing.
“Social media is great (when) connecting with other people and family overseas, but you just have to make sure that you remind them that there’s good and bad and don’t take all the stuff you find online as facts,” she said.
“Both my husband and I are so involved in social media (as users), so we have that conversation all the time about what’s going on. They can’t pull a fast one, they can’t hide anything because they know that we know.”
DeSouza’s situation is different. His two oldest children have their own devices, getting them at 11 and seven years of age.
While his older kids have their moments where they’ve been asked to disconnect, his 11-year-old son has had far more trouble.
He’s had to seek counselling for some of his habits — often spending hours isolated in his room playing video games and using instant messaging app Discord to co-ordinate gaming sessions with friends.
It got to the point where his son approached him worried, telling DeSouza he was having trouble connecting with friends at school.
“Of all my four children, he was the most fragile within the last window of time because of COVID, but also because of the internet,” DeSouza said.
“I don’t know if it would be different if he had no phone, because he had to get a Chromebook to do school, so he would have still been able to game and do all the stuff he wanted to do.”
His son is doing better now with counselling, DeSouza added, yet he worries about giving devices to his two youngest children. They enjoy spending time outdoors, and if they’re on screens, it’s usually Netflix on their grandparents’ devices, he said.
But with social media and the internet so common in society now and even in his household, DeSouza fears he’s fighting a losing battle.
“As a parent, I feel like I have no control over this because even if I say I’m going to take it away, it’s kind of like a threat I can’t really follow because I know it’s not going to last forever,” he said.
“That’s the struggle as a parent I have, and I don’t want my seven-year-old and my five-year-old getting phones right now to be able to do this.”
‘Make sure your kids know that they can come to you’
Living under lockdown with remote schooling, 49-year-old Ottawa resident Matthew Johnson exposed his two sons, 13 and 10, to the internet a bit sooner than he would’ve liked.
“We really did work a lot to make sure that we were providing them with screen activities that were active, educational, creative or genuinely social,” he said.
Johnson, who is also the director of education at digital media literacy organization MediaSmarts, said his sons have also used Messenger Kids to contact their friends, and his eldest has used his Discord account to message friends to play games. The other uses a coding platform in which users can like and subscribe to projects.
Even though they aren’t on photo-sharing applications like Instagram yet, Johnson is trying to set an example for his children by asking for their permission before posting a photo they’re in. He’s trying to model the idea of respecting other people’s privacy and getting their OK before making a post.
In his role as a media literacy expert, Johnson said most concerns he hears from parents are around screen time, but also on misinformation and disinformation.
“It’s something in many cases that we don’t feel confident about,” he said.
“Most of us are aware that we need to go beyond just telling kids not to believe everything they see online, because if we don’t know what to believe, if we don’t know what is true or how to find out what is true, then everything seems equally false.”
Johnson encourages parents to start having conversations with their children regarding social media use at an early age to establish trust.
“Make sure your kids know that they can come to you if they have a problem and that you’re not going to freak out,” he said.
“If they know that when they come to you with any problem, you’re going to have their back, you’re going to help them, then they’re a lot more likely to come to you and they’re going to focus on that instead of trying to hide what’s gone wrong.”
Parents ‘need to understand how the platforms work’
Over his decade-long career as a social media and online safety educator, what Paul Davis is speaking about now is “much darker” than when he first started.
“Issues 10 years ago that impacted Grade 9s are now impacting Grade 7s, issues that impacted Grade 8s are impacting Grade 5s,” he said.
“The No. 1 thing I find with all the situations brought forth to me is that they would have been preventable if we didn’t put too much too soon in their hands.”
Cyberbullying, sexting, sharing of sexual images, luring and human trafficking are among the issues Davis is now talking about.
He advises parents to start teaching their children about social media and the internet when they’re young. Among the rules he put in place was not allowing his daughters to have any technology in their bedroom.
“It wasn’t a punishment, it was just the rule of the house because curiosity in isolation with global connectivity is how most kids get hurt,” he said, adding that parents who introduce rules later in life might run into obstacles.
He advises parents to understand social media platforms, and what privacy policies exist, to determine if it’s the right option for their child at the right age.
Parents don’t have to be on social media either, Davis said, but they have to know and take a vested interest in it.
“At birth, they were given a gift called curiosity, and … when you combine curiosity with technology in isolation with no rules and guidelines, kids are going to explore,” he said.
“It’s not their fault, they haven’t been guided, they don’t have rules, they don’t have disciplines and that’s the responsibility of us as parents … and we have to step up our game.”