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Tech Matters: Why you should remove social media apps for now

By Leslie Meredith - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Oct 18, 2023

Photo supplied

Leslie Meredith

When I first started thinking about the effects of coverage of the brutal attacks on Israelis living close to Gaza, I thought I’d write this column about how to protect kids from seeing graphic images circulating on social media.

Educators and parents had the same idea. Last week, parents in Israel and the U.S. received warnings from their children’s schools to remove social media apps from their kids’ phones, fearing even more graphic videos would be released in the coming days. The warning originated in a WhatsApp group from an unconfirmed source, according to a report in The Times of Israel. But the message is clear and should be considered seriously.

Taking a break from social media is not just for kids. Following the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, researchers at the University of Irvine in California served 4,675 people within two weeks of the bombing. What they found was astonishing.

“Extensive exposure to Boston Marathon bombing media coverage caused more acute stress in people watching on TV, online or listening to radio reports than in those experiencing the terrorist attack itself. People who engaged in six or more hours of bombing accounts — even without visuals — were nine times more likely to report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than the bombing victims,” researchers concluded.

Since then, terms have emerged to describe what feels like an overwhelming need to consume the news, whether that’s online, on your TV or in print. There’s “doomscrolling,” headline anxiety and even headline stress disorder. So let’s start with what adults can do to prevent these ill effects and then we’ll move on to the kids.

Start by turning off all news notifications. Schedule a time to check the news and set a timer so that you limit your session. I’d stick to major news outlets and avoid social media where it’s just too easy to keep scrolling, looking for one more detail. You may want to remove apps like X, Instagram and TikTok for now.

Consider tech-free periods such as the weekend and enforce a no-phones policy when there are others in the room. Break the habit of checking your phone when you have an idle moment like waiting in line at the grocery store. Instead, take the time to look around, say hello to others or just enjoy a quiet moment.

If you have grown children with kids, respect their wishes when it comes to news exposure. A friend told me her in-laws would not turn off the news on their 70-inch TV when the grandkids visited, so she’s suspended visits for now. You may also want to avoid discussions of controversial topics and shift conversations to positive subjects that make everyone feel good.

If you have children who have their own phones, delete social media apps for at least a couple of weeks and revisit at the end of the month. Calmly explain to your children why you’re doing that and lead by example: The apps shouldn’t be on your phone either.

You may want to consider a third-party control app that will block access to apps you specify. There are also parental controls in most social media apps, but I don’t have a lot of confidence that these controls are sufficient. However, YouTube Kids has a pretty good system for parents which is good for families with younger children.

First, make sure you are looking at YouTube Kids, not the regular YouTube app. If this is new for you, you’ll log in using a Google account and then set up your child’s profile. You can preselect shows so that those are the only videos available to your child. No search feature will be accessible. Open the app, tap the lock icon, complete the multiplication problem and then tap “Settings.” Select your child’s profile, open “Edit Settings” and then tap the “Approve content yourself” box rather than one of the age range boxes. You can now search for channels you like and review premade collections grouped by topic. Check the ones you’d like to add to your child’s channel and tap “Done.”

For older kids, talk as a family about what is happening in the world and reassure them of their safety. Let them know they can say “no” to friends who want to watch videos that are violent or upsetting, and that you or someone you trust is available to come and get them if they want to leave a friend’s house. Encourage your kids to ask questions and find the answers together — a family trip to the library would be a great choice.

Leslie Meredith has been writing about technology for more than a decade. As a mom of four, value, usefulness and online safety take priority. Have a question? Email Leslie at asklesliemeredith@gmail.com.

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