Social media and children: What did Kate Winslet say? | Opinion

Social media and children: What did Kate Winslet say? | Opinion

“Totally powerless.” That’s how actress Kate Winslet says parents feel about their children’s social media use.

In an interview ahead of the premiere of her film “I Am Ruth” (about a girl who suffers a mental breakdown due to the messages she receives online), Winslet says she wants the government to get more involved in the regulation of social media for children.

Winslet is of course correct that the experience some children have on their phones can be very disturbing and even life-changing, but she is wrong that parents are powerless.

The movie, which also stars Winslet’s real-life daughter, centers on the single mother of a 17-year-old who becomes increasingly withdrawn.

But that 17-year-old was once a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old, and the question is what went on before. How did the girl become so dependent on that little screen in her hand? Did someone restrict her use of that phone? Or teach her the importance of putting it down once in a while?

Even if the government did more to regulate social media for children, it’s not clear what effect it would have on someone who is almost an adult. The burden here is on parents.

Winslet notes that “we don’t really know what’s going on in their friendship groups anymore because so much of it is actually built on phones, within phones.” But this in itself is a problem that makes parents eat.

The first question is whether children form enough personal friendships. When children are younger, parents must accept this responsibility. It’s easy to let kids play on screens and virtually connect with other kids (or really anyone). In a previous era, parents could just open the door and let children out to play in the neighborhood. But now ensuring kids have face time (not FaceTime) with peers outside of school requires playdates and other activities.

But the other danger is that personal friendships migrate online and become much more toxic. “This world that you can dig deeper and deeper into, and it gets darker and harder and much, much harder for kids to navigate,” Winslet says.

This is why parents have to wait until children are older before giving them access to smartphones and then monitor their activity into their teenage years, as annoying and time-consuming as that may be.

The actress notes that “because young kids have phones at a much earlier age, they have access to things that they’re just not emotionally equipped or sophisticated enough to know how to process.”

Serious. But members of Congress (or Parliament) are not going to solve this problem. They’re not the ones buying your kids’ phones.

If parents are going to give kids access to phones, there are important lessons kids need to understand before interacting with them socially, whether through social media or texting or even email.

For one thing, everything they write is permanent. This is perhaps the most difficult lesson because adolescents have so little capacity to understand the effects of their actions next week, let alone 10 years down the road. Frankly, there are many adults who do not understand this. Would you mind if your principal saw that text message? Yes? Then it’s probably best not to send it.

Children should also understand why they should never take any photos or send any photos to anyone else without the permission of the person on them. Someone once told me that the most dangerous feature of a smartphone is not any social media app. It’s actually the camera.

This brings us to the hardest lesson for kids (and adults) to learn about the Internet. The things they see there are usually not real. Or even if they are real, they are not representative. It’s not just the people bragging about their vacations, or the photos of very thin airbrushed models that we need to learn to ignore. We need to be able to put the things we see online into context. Does what we see in a virtual world match our experience of the real world?

These are subtle but very important lessons that no government agency is going to be able to teach our children. Perhaps government restrictions on children’s social media (as my American Enterprise Institute colleagues Yuval Levin and Christine Rosen have suggested) would be worth considering, but so much of the content harmful to children comes from YouTube videos or group texts off. They have access to too much adult content and are subject to constant communication from their friends and peers, often messages that are bullying and kept secret from adults.

Films like “I Am Ruth” are important because they can warn adults about the dangers of smartphone use for children. But the message for parents should not be to lobby lawmakers. It must be to change what goes on inside their own homes.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a Deseret News contributor. She is the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Ruining Young Lives,” among other books.

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