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It’s Easier Than Ever For Teens to Make Regrettable Decisions Online

And it’s keeping some of them out of Harvard.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

Many studies show the potentially negative effects of social media on developing teenage brains. But as Ana Homayoun writes in the New York Times, there’s another, more fundamental concern about teens’ online activities: What exactly are they doing on there, anyways?

According to Homayoun, teens spend “around nine hours using some form of online media everyday.” Despite that huge chunk of time spent online, parents remain relatively clueless about what sort of content their kids are engaging with or creating.

Homayoun, author of the book “Social Media Wellness: Helping Teens and Tweens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World,” points to Common Sense Media data that found “30 percent of teens who are online believe their parents know ‘little’ or ‘nothing’ about what social media apps and sites they use,” she writes.

Teens are also getting better at evading the very tools designed to give parents insight into their behavior. Whether they create a “finsta” (a separate, private Instagram account for close friends), use secret Facebook groups or apps like Vaulty or Calculator+, both of which help hide content like photos or video, Homayoun explains that there are many ways teens can shield their actual internet habits.

These tools are used in part because “so much of today’s teen social media use is rooted in a fear of getting caught,” she writes. But there’s danger — sometimes future-altering — in assuming that “hidden” online activity is actually secret. Homayoun points to the recent, headline-making incident where a group of teens admitted to Harvard University had their acceptances revoked after their private Facebook group, filled with blatantly offensive imagery, was made public.

One potential reason why this happened, Homayoun argues, is that teens are likely to overshare online when they think what they’re posting is hidden. Homayoun also points to a broader issue with digital interaction: Teens are vulnerable to placing too much importance on likes, views, “loves” and comments and using these as “a barometer for for popularity,” she writes.

There might be science to help explain why smart young teens could be so flippant about their online behavior. Homayoun cites a recent study from the University of California, Los Angeles, where researchers found that the parts of teens’ brains “focused on reward processing and social cognition” are activated when they think about money, sex and well-liked photos on social media. Additionally, when teens “viewed photos deemed risky,” the researchers found the parts of the brain focused on “cognitive control were not activated as much, suggesting that it could be harder for them to make good decisions when viewing images or videos that are graphic in nature,” Homayoun writes.

Teaching teens healthy social media boundaries is tricky, because without knowing exactly what their kids are doing online, parents can’t be certain how to address the issues at hand. But using apps to monitor teens’ phone usage threatens to invade kids’ privacy and betray their trust, something Homayoun warns against at this stage in their development. Instead, she says “adults need to shift the conversation around teens’ social media use away from a fear of getting caught and more toward healthy socialization, effective self-regulation and overall safety.”

For teens and adults alike, it’s important to recognize the limits of “secrecy” in the age of oversharing. The illusion of privacy that a private group or an app gives us can be dangerous, and it’s important to remember that whatever we post could come back to haunt us.

Read the full story on the New York Times.

Originally published at medium.com

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