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Navigating Misinformation and Harmful Content on Social Media

How parents, teens, and researchers manage the impact of content online.

Key points

  • Online content can be harmful, graphic, and even dangerous for youth.
  • It is important to talk to your child about judging whether a source is accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Help your child understand that photos and videos can be edited.
Julia M Cameron / Pexels
Mother and son look at the computer.
Julia M Cameron / Pexels

In today’s digital age, teens are glued to their screens, growing up in an endless stream of online content and information that can be both a source of support and beneficial for many. Unfortunately, it can also be harmful, graphic, and even dangerous.

Parents often ask me how to mitigate the flow of information to protect their kids from false ideals of beauty, negative social comparison, and unrealistic expectations of appearances. These days, it also seems as though videos of death, destruction, and political turmoil are flooding platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Too much of this content, real or fake, can impact one’s mood and have a lasting impact on their mental health. These are challenging questions for challenging times.

Helpful tips for minimizing risks while supporting what makes social media great:

  • Help your child understand that not everything we see online is accurate. It’s normal, especially for developing teenage brains, to be influenced by what they see on social media (both good and bad), and as humans, we are designed to believe what we see.
  • Help your child understand that photos and videos can be edited and that many people are selective about what they share, providing only a curated view of their lives. Parents need to remind their teens and adults social media is different from real life and that likes, comments, or posts may not represent what most people actually think or do. It is important to talk to your child about how to judge whether a source is real, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • It is also important to monitor and discuss your child’s social media use with them. It’s helpful to talk to your teenager about who they are following and, more importantly, how images, videos, and comments make them feel. We can help them make decisions about which accounts to block or unfollow, especially if they notice that certain people or content is making them feel bad about themselves. As parents and adult allies, we can help them find true role models and surround them with positive influences both online and offline.

As researchers, we, too, are trying to figure out the best way to spot misinformation on social media and how best to combat it. At the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research and Northwell Health, my team and I are interested in stopping the spread of harmful misinformation, especially when it comes to mental health. Our goal is to develop new digital tools designed to improve mental health awareness and reduce stigma among youth.

Social media can be a powerful tool helping to connect our youth and foster an environment of positive communication. However, in a world of graphic negative news, online “trolls,” and misinformation, it is the responsibility of all of us: parents, researchers, mental health professionals, and social media companies to invest in developing actionable solutions to protect our youth.

More from Michael L. Birnbaum M.D.
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