On preteens and social media

Published 10:24 pm Tuesday, November 12, 2019

By Nathan Rice

Alarm sounds were blaring inside my head as she completed her sentence. “I got a bunch of messages from people asking me to be their girlfriend. Some of them even think I’m 16 years old.”

The 12-year-old was speaking about her Instagram page and the messages she receives from other people through the social media’s direct messaging service. “You have to be extremely careful about those,” I warned. I continued by reminding her that she shouldn’t even be on social media sites at this age.

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My words fell on deaf ears. She said she only befriends people on social media who she knows, but I was able to determine that was not the truth when she showed me she has more than 670 followers on Instagram.

I would force her to remove her social media page if I could, but I cannot. I am her pastor, not her parent, so all I can do is offer my advice, tell her of the dangers, and pray.

I have nothing against social media. I have accounts on several social media sites, and I enjoy being able to keep in contact with people. Social media sites can be enjoyable, but there are numerous pitfalls and dangers on social media sites that a 12-year-old isn’t prepared to handle.

Kids are often excited to join social media platforms, but I encourage parents to take a second look before allowing their pre-teens access to these sites.

We should first consider the danger that comes by allowing a 12-year-old to be privately contacted by anyone on the world wide web. I’m sure many of the users on this young girl’s Instagram page are innocently looking for someone to talk with on the platform. Others, however, may be interested in something more sinister. While much of social media is placed online so everyone can see, there is a private messaging service on nearly every social media site. No one reviews private messages, so they can receive words and images from anyone without any censorship.

Next is the danger that comes from online predators who use social media to contact minors and create an online friendship with the goal of meeting that minor in person. I know that speaking about online predators may make me sound like I’m about to discuss a “Dateline” special, but there is no denying that they do exist. We don’t want to be paranoid, but we should be aware of this very real danger.

Giving everyone online the ability to communicate with a 12-year-old in complete privacy is simply not wise. Many of the messages are innocent, and a large majority won’t lead to any lasting damage, but preteens are not yet mature enough to handle the risks that come with this service, and they shouldn’t be forced to do so.

Lastly, social media has a way of emboldening people to speak to others in a way they may not do in a face to face interaction. Name-calling and vicious attacks through the written words are not uncommon by adults and kids on social media.

I glanced through the 12-year-old’s social media site with whom I was speaking. It contained an interaction with one of her peers, where the two verbally attacked each other. The post had one wishing the other would “crawl in a hole and die” while the other threatened physical harm at their next meeting. It’s just another example of a way social media can be harmful to preteens.

I encourage parents to carefully consider when they allow their kids to enter into the realm of social media. Consider making them wait until they, at the very least, enter high school. No matter your decision, and no matter what age you allow them to join, make sure you discuss the dangers with them, and make sure you monitor their activity closely.

Nathan Rice is a Hampton Roads native and can be reached at nrice@abnb.org.