With the majority of the U.S. population now home due to COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, millions of teens are spending more time online.
Almost all high schools have shifted their regular academic classes to Zoom or other digital platforms. Local governments have banned most forms of outside entertainment, which means teens are spending an increasing amount of time inside. And social distancing regulations prohibit gatherings, which means friends can’t visit one another. The only way teens can keep in touch with friends, classmates, and significant others is through virtual communication. Which means your teen is probably spending hours and hours every day on electronic devices.
While this can’t really be avoided, parents should still keep in mind that there are certain dangers on the internet. Of course, these warnings apply year-round. But we’re reiterating them now, because during COVID-19, children and teens are spending more time – both voluntarily and for schoolwork – on digital platforms.
Reminders for Teens and Parents: Dangers of the Internet
1. The Dark Web.
It’s the underground Internet that you can only access through special software, and it’s full of nefarious activity. The dark web hides your location and identity. It’s frequented by teens and others who want to hide their online activity. Teens often use the dark web to purchase illegal drugs. Sometimes they use it to view dangerously inappropriate content. It’s the kind of stuff that makes your insides turn: pornography, snuff films, and other disturbing, illegal content. The dark web is popular with criminals, pedophiles, and other unsavory characters. They’re savvy, and they target relatively naïve users, making the dark web a dangerous place for teens.
2. Inappropriate sites, pictures, and videos.
Your teen may never visit the dark web, but there are plenty of inappropriate internet sites on the surface web to monitor. Teens may innocently and unintentionally stumble upon graphic content like violence, porn, or recruiting materials for radical social, religious, or political movements. Teens can fall into a black hole of dangerous content on sites like YouTube simply because of what comes up on the suggestions sidebar while they watch completely safe, uncontroversial content.
3. Social media.
Digital platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok are not all innocuous, even if your teen doesn’t follow any inappropriate accounts. Although some teens benefit from the connections they make and the support they receive from peers on social media, some teens have the opposite experience. Too much social media is neither supportive nor affirming. Using social media too much, and placing too much value on social media, can increase anxiety and diminish self-esteem. Social media creates opportunities for competition and peer pressure based on curated realities that are not ultimately real. Teens wonder, Why does everyone but me have a perfect life? And for teens with mental health issues who may feel like they need to hide behind a mask in order to be like everyone else, the stress caused by the constant comparison can exacerbate their symptoms.
The internet makes it very easy for teens to bully others, as perpetrators can hide behind a screen and fake account to avoid being discovered. But cyberbullying can as dangerous – or even worse – than face-to-face bullying, since the victim feels like even their home isn’t a safe space. Cyberbullying can happen anywhere, but there are places where it’s more common. Social media platforms like ASK.fm or Kik have been linked to dozens of adolescent suicides: teens have resorted to killing themselves as a result of receiving waves of hateful, bullying messages.
5. Sex trafficking.
If you think sex trafficking only happens in shady train stations or airports, think again. Nowadays, sex traffickers start out messaging vulnerable teens online and forming trusting relationships with them. Minors are both recruited and prostituted on the very sites your teens may be visiting, including social media, chat rooms, and gaming websites like Minecraft, Clash of Clans, or World of Warcraft. These predators often appear caring and considerate in efforts to seduce the vulnerable adolescents. It’s a process called grooming: they prepare their intended target, sometimes over months. And sometimes they pose as other teens in order to get the adolescent to send them sexual material like nudes – which makes the teen target vulnerable to blackmail.
Even regular texting with friends can become dangerous. Significant others, peers, or classmates can turn regular texting conversations into inappropriate, innuendo-laden encounters. They may pressure your teen to send nude photos of themselves, or send unsolicited nudes of their own to your child. What many don’t know, however, is that sexting is a federal crime. Anyone who sends or receives sexually explicit content electronically could face federal and state child pornography charges. Research shows that roughly 20% of adolescents have sent sexually explicit photos of themselves to someone else. Additionally, almost double that number of teens had sent a sext-type message.
Why You Need an Internet Filter
All these dangers are real. They exist. Which is why we recommend all parents install filters on any electronic devices their teen use. Filters protect your teen from the harmful people and content listed above. At Evolve, we believe that adolescents and teens should never have unfiltered, unlimited access to their electronic devices. Giving your teen free reign on a smartphone or laptop is like letting them loose in an area of town where you know dangerous characters hang out: it’s just not a safe choice.
Filters are important for another reason: they can control and limit the amount of time your teen spends online. Even if your teen never stumbles upon any dangerous sites, they still shouldn’t spend all day on their laptop. Too much screen time can exacerbate the symptoms of mental health issues in some teens. And for others, the light from screens can cause headaches and disrupt healthy sleep patterns.
What You Can Do
If you’re worried about how much time your teen spends online and how much they use social media, the first step is to install a filter.
Then, urge them to spend time on a hobby that doesn’t involve a screen. Start with anything that happens outside, in nature. They need to see the sky, trees, flowers, and grass: all the simple, natural things. Then suggest things like baking, cooking, painting, reading, or playing an instrument. Even calling a friend to talk on the phone is better than engaging in a three-hour texting conversation.
However, if nothing you do gets them out of screenland, or they’ve learned how to bypass the filters you set up, you may need to consider the idea that they’ve developed an unhealthy relationship with their phone, and possibly with the internet in general. Contact a licensed mental health treatment center to see if your teen has symptoms of phone or internet addiction. They may also be struggling with a mental health or emotional issue. Sometimes teens seek relief online, through chatting and surfing the web. A mental health professional can help you and your teen get to the root of their phone and internet use, and determine the best way to restore safe, healthy, and productive habits.