Social smarts



Advice on how to connect safely on social media

Ciara Moynihan

During lockdown, many of us have spent more time than ever on social media, seeking a feeling of connection with fellow humans while we cannot physically connect. However, the social-media sphere is not always a warm and fuzzy place; in fact, it can be downright hostile and even dangerous.
And now, as the platforms proliferate and users grow, the risks rise. While many ‘older’ users are very familiar with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, many are less so with platforms like Snapchat and TikTok. Does the advice on safe social-media usage apply to all of these platforms equally?
Marie O’Sullivan is a teacher, counsellor, IT trainer and an author and facilitator for Westport-based Anokha Learning, which offers online courses for teachers and guardians, including courses on internet safety and cyberbullying prevention. She says that when using any platform, we should start with ‘the five Ps of internet safety – profile, privacy, protect, (keep it) positive, and permission’.
“Each platform has specific features,” Marie tells The Mayo News. “For example, on Instagram and TikTok, accounts are automatically set to ‘Public’.
“I would also be mindful of the assumptions that we make about a particular platform. With Snapchat, there is a common misconception that messages ‘disappear’. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. We might think of TikTok as a platform where we share songs or dance moves. But recently, there were reports of young people being exposed to distressing content there.”
Marie recommends finding out up-to-date and balanced advice on things to watch out for on each platform, and points to explainer guides and recent blogs on sites such as Webwise and Zeeko.

Mental health
When social media first emerged, it was mostly associated with younger users. However, all generations are now scrolling and posting with gusto. Younger people may be more likely to experience negative mental-health impacts associated with social-media usage, however.
“Adolescence is a time where we are trying to make sense of who we are,” Marie explains. “Young people can be very rejection-sensitive. Rejection can be subtle or overt. Don’t discount how hurtful it can be to be left out of a group chat, for example. Cyberbullying and body shaming can impact a young person’s core beliefs about themselves.
“Young people often look to peers for validation. They may use the number of likes on a post as a gauge of their popularity. They might internalise beliefs about themselves based on how others respond to them online. Social media can normalise an obsessive focus on appearance. They might be regularly exposed to carefully curated images that are a ‘highlights reel’.”
That said, Marie cautions that older users should not think that they are invincible. “Adults are not immune to any of this. It depends on the individual. For example, I would look at how much time the person is spending on social media. Have they offline support networks (family, friends, colleagues)? How are they feeling after spending time online?”
If talking to someone whose body image has been affected by the ideals of perfection that are so pervasive across social media, Marie says she ‘would encourage them to talk about how it has affected them and validate that experience’. “I would also gently challenge them to look for evidence of what people look like in real life. I might talk to them about their feeds and who they are following. I might also invite them to explore the accounts of body-positive champions to present another perspective.”
Oversharing of personal information online can also be an issue, as can reactive heat-of-the-moment posts. Marie recommends that before you post something online, it’s a good idea to think about whether you would be happy with a relative reading what you have posted online. “If you are feeling hurt or angry, it can be a good idea to step away from your devices for a while,” she adds.    

Advice for parents
Young people have reported that parents’ advice can sometimes feel irrelevant, because they are not ‘tech savvy’, or they might be overly concerned about stranger danger, overlooking the more-common challenges that teens and young adults are meeting on social media daily. What advice would Marie give to adults about talking with their children about social media?
“I would invite the adults to approach the conversation with curiosity, not fear. If we come at it with very fixed views, we might shut the conversation down before it even starts.
“Cybersafe Ireland provides some excellent examples of conversation starters. Be genuinely interested in what the young person likes about social media. Use open questions. You might like to ask the young person about their thoughts on issues such as ‘fake news’. You could ask them to show you how to use a certain platform or feature. Raise awareness about how the images they see online may have been carefully curated. Talk to them about topical issues, such as the recent US Elections.  
“Ask them their views on how social media can influence how we perceive things. Help the young person to develop their critical thinking skills. Talk to them about how it’s important to evaluate the information presented to us online.
“If we can find out about what the young person is doing online, this can allay some of our fears. They may well be more mindful of the risks than we think! Remember we want them to turn to us if they encounter an issue, rather than trying to deal with it on their own.”

Five tips for using social media

Be reflective: Think about how your social media usage is impacting you
Be informed: Don’t accept what you see online at face value  
Be real:Be mindful of distorting who you are so that others will accept you
Be discerning: Unfollow content that is disturbing
Spend time offline: Balance is key

Marie O’Sullivan is an experienced teacher and counsellor. She holds an MSc in Child and Adolescent Counselling and is a course author at Anokha Learning. Anokha Learning is a Department of Education-approved online education company based in Westport set up by natives Fiona Quinn and Cyril Crowe.