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Social media, like all other tools, brings with it a number of hazards. For instance, children can be exposed to age-inappropriate content through pop-ups. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Dubai: Are children safe online?

Most parents will not bat an eyelid before saying they are not, and that they need constant supervision. But with the influx of social media, online education and children spending more time on their screens, this is easier said than done.

Experts and psychologists have repeatedly called for oversight into the workings of social media platforms.

So why are social media platforms not doing enough to protect the vulnerable?

One answer to this was provided recently by a former Facebook product manager who turned whistleblower during three hours of testimony before a Senate subcommittee.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appears before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee at the Russell Senate Office Building on Oct. 5, 2021. Image Credit: WP

Frances Haugen, who worked on Facebook's civic misinformation team for nearly two years until May, said Facebook had purposely hidden disturbing research about how teenagers felt worse about themselves after using its products. She also said the company was willing to use hateful content on its site to keep users coming back.

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Who is Frances Haugen?
Frances Haugen was born and raised in Iowa. She is the daughter of a doctor father and a mother who gave up an academic career to become a priest.
She holds a degree in electrical and computer engineering from Olin College and an MBA from Harvard.
She previously worked at Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Pinterest Inc. and other social networks, specialising in designing algorithms and other tools that determine what content gets served to users.

What did Haugen do at Facebook?
According to the Wall Street Journal, Haugen was a product manager hired by Facebook to help protect against election interference.
The Civic Integrity Team, of which she was a part, probed how the platform could spread political falsehoods, stoke violence and be abused by malicious governments.
Her team was dissolved in late 2020, and the members were shuffled into other parts of the broader integrity division.
Toward the end of her time at Facebook, Haugen said she believed that people outside the company should know what she had discovered.
Haugen said her thinking about social media changed after she lost a friendship.

Is criticism of Facebook new?
Facebook has been battling intense criticism for many years, especially after US intelligence officials said the platform was used by Russia to meddle in the 2016 US presidential election.
The documents released offer a clear picture of how broadly Facebook’s problems are known inside the company, up to the chief executive himself.

"I'm here today because I believe Facebook's products harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy," Haugen, 37, said during her testimony. "The company's leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won't make the necessary changes."

The testimony resulted in immediate reactions – from senators and Facebook itself.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in a note to employees, said news coverage about the company’s motives were misleading and the company’s research taken out of context.

What do teachers, children, and social media influencers feel about the topic? Are they comfortable using social media and are they taking precautions to stay safe?

Here’s what they say.

'Create a safe space at home that is a judgement-free zone'

Meghna Dutta, events co-ordinator and Cycle 3 deputy phase leader at The Cambridge High School, Abu Dhabi

As an educator who is also a millennial, I experienced the surge of social media at the age of 18, as opposed to youth today whose lives are deeply influenced by social media from as young as eight or nine years in some cases.

I would say students’ diminished attention spans, and even more so with the onset of the pandemic, is one of the biggest hazards of social media use. Excessive use of devices does not make for a conducive learning atmosphere. In addition to being a distraction, a more sinister by-product of constant access to social media is the threat of cyber bullying, which I find most disconcerting.

While I am aware that most social media platforms have a minimum age requirement of 13, I would personally be more comfortable if that were raised to 16. The vast array of content available across all social media platforms means users can sometimes be exposed to inappropriate or incendiary content, and the danger is that social media presents an environment that lacks safety, security and comfort – all of which are elements that are crucial to a child’s mental health and development.

I urge parents to create a safe space at home that is a judgement-free zone, in which their children are encouraged to share and communicate.

We exist in a society where the influence of social media has permeated every aspect of our lives; exposure to social media is unavoidable, and cutting it out is unrealistic. It’s therefore all the more crucial to create an environment where children are able to have an open dialogue with their parents about any concerns they may have.

‘Students are too young to manage their emotions’

Sirina Poole, high school English teacher at GEMS American Academy, Abu Dhabi

Bullying is a huge issue for many students on Facebook. Often, students are too young and lack the awareness to manage their emotions and responses. While responses are not meant to be harmful, the quick response often causes undue harm. This is well documented throughout North America.

Some of the other hazards of social media are overuse and [its detrimental impact on] sleep. Students spend much of their time engrossed in personal accounts of influencers, which hinders their development.

[In my opinion], 16 is a good age to allow social media use. Students are learning more about navigating relationships and personal safety at this point. Meanwhile, parents should be aware of what platforms their children are on, and have access to their devices.

Graphic social media security
Image Credit: Source: Norton

'Parents must discuss risks with children'

Anna Carey, assistance head of the secondary section at the British International School, Abu Dhabi

Social media, like all other tools, brings with it a number of hazards. For instance, children can be exposed to age-inappropriate content through pop-ups. Without proper supervision and awareness, they can also develop cyber bullying behaviours, or themselves face bullying.

It is therefore important for parents and educators to discuss these risks with children. Social media use tends to increase at about 12 years, as device use increases, and parents should therefore be vigilant.

Other safeguards include managing screen time, as reducing it is almost always beneficial, and reducing app notifications. Children should also be advised to interact only with people they personally know.

As a school, we always advise that children continue to be kind and respectful even when online, and educate parents about how to protect children through privacy settings.

Every child develops at a different rate, and some may be more adept at handling the pressures of social media. For example, we have a student at school who is engaged in social media marketing, even though he is only in Grade 5. So the decision on when children can be allowed on social media depends on parental assessments of children’s maturity.

Tips for parents on kids’ internet safety
■ Keep the computer in a common area of your home
■ Only allow your child to access the internet for a limited, set time each day. Homework might be an exception.
■ If your child wants to join a social media site, request that you have access to their account credentials.
■ If your child is an older teen, ask them to add you as a friend so you can monitor their activities via your own account.
■ Stick with age-appropriate sites.
■ Always review the privacy settings on your child’s profile.

‘Social media is a double-edged sword’

Ayush Dasannacharya, 17 years, Indian, Grade 11 student at The Cambridge High School, Abu Dhabi

“WhatsApp and Instagram are the only Facebook-affiliated social media sites I use. I’ve been using WhatsApp since around 2016, and I’ve been using Instagram since around 2018.

I used to spend a lot of time on social media a few years ago, but over the past few years I’ve steadily cut down on its use. One of the problems with accessing social media at a young age is that one doesn’t set any boundaries for oneself, and as a result it can quickly develop into an addiction.

I am aware of the possible risks social media poses, and am quite concerned by them. Social media seems to promote content that portrays lifestyles that, in most cases, are just a facade. Impressionable minds are often fooled into thinking that the glitz and glamour that social media portrays is real, and this can often have a devastating impact on mental health, as kids compare their lives with those that are promoted by ‘influencers’.

Ironically enough, it is mainly through social media sites that I’ve learned of the risks. While social media does indeed generate issues, it also hosts platforms that warn of them. Younger demographics rarely read newspapers anymore, and most of the news content delivered to them comes via social media. I recently learnt of the allegations made by Facebook through a news site’s Instagram page. Social media has the potential to deliver useful, informative content, but it also has the potential to misinform. It really is a double-edged sword.

Personally, I’ve never felt the need to disconnect from social media, simply because my usage of it was comparatively low. Granted, it is quite a distraction, but at my age, people tend to be able to put devices aside and concentrate when needed. However, I do have many friends who have felt a need to disconnect, as they felt that their social media usage was too high. Coming from them, disconnecting has been nothing but positive, as it opened their eyes to how much of their lives was consumed by social media.

‘Social media can be very addictive’

Saif Al-Din Khraiwesh, 17 years, Jordanian, Grade 12 student at GEMS American Academy, Abu Dhabi

I use WhatsApp and Instagram as well as Facebook, and I joined them to be able to talk to my close friends and family. I use Instagram as a way to be able to connect to new friends and see what they are posting online about their lives.

I use social media daily; however, I place a limit on myself to not stay for longer than two hours. It can be very addictive, so it is important to be able to control the amount of time on these platforms.

I personally know of the risks of social media, and there have been classes in the previous years where the risks of these platforms were talked about, which helped make students aware of the effects.

In the past, I have disconnected and temporarily stopped using these platforms because I felt as though there was an invasion of my personal space, and I felt much better as I could feel a sense of relief. I like to give myself some time on my own and not be involved with the public, just so I can focus on more important aspects in my life.

'My school has already highlighted the risks of these platforms for me'

Abby Gill, 16 years, British, Grade 11 student at the British International School Abu Dhabi

“I use Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. I first started using social media when I turned 11 years old, and mainly to keep in touch with family and friends around the world.

In terms of time, I spend an hour a day on social media, and my school has already highlighted the risks of these platforms for me.

During the time of exams, I delete certain apps to be able to focus more on my studies, and I also turn off my notifications to minimise time spent.

'It is the responsibility of parents to ensure that children are not intimidated by what they see'

Nilufar Yuldash, 31, lifestyle influencer and mommy blogger from Uzbekistan.

I made my profile public about six years ago, mainly to document the expat mommy lifestyle in Dubai. Over time, I began to put up lifestyle content as well. On average, my followers are aged between 18 and 38 years, but I also hear from younger social media users. For instance, one of the youngest people to contact me was a 12-year-old.

I know that there are risks to social media use for young children, especially because they trust easily and can share personal data or confidential information with strangers. Risks can also crop up because young users share location data. This is why parents must educate children early.

A lot of people complain that children can develop body image issues, or face peer pressure, on social media. But I do not relate to those fears. It is the responsibility of parents to ensure that children are not intimidated by what they see, and are confident and secure enough to handle social pressures. After all, social pressures can also be present at school or in other physical environments.

My son, who is seven years old, has a social media account, but he only uses it on my phone, and only when I am present. I think I would let him access it on his own when he is 13 years old, but still continue to supervise the use.

Social media graphic
Image Credit: Gulf News

Parents must have conversations with children early

Virdah Javed Khan, 31, lifestyle influencer and mom blogger from Pakistan

In today’s world, we cannot afford to deprive children of social media. But it is also true that we can be blindsided by the kind of age-inappropriate content to which they may be exposed. Social media platforms also use algorithms that can expose children to unsuitable content, and any unintended click can further reinforce this kind of messaging.

It is also true that it is difficult to constantly monitor children’s social media use. So, we need to start having conversations with our children early on so that they are not affected by the pressures of social media. We need to explain to them that they should not compare themselves to anyone they see online, and we need to teach them to be secure about who they are and how they look.

It is difficult to decide when exactly you should allow your children to open up their own social media accounts; I think I would allow my five-year-old to have supervised access to his own social media accounts when he turns 13. But I have already started educating him about how to handle questions and comments from people he meets, because he will one day encounter the same on social media. For instance, people already ask him about his long hair at the moment, and I help him understand that he should not compare himself with others.

In my own case, Orkut was the first social media platform I used, before moving on to Facebook.