Close your eyes and imagine you are back in high school. You are sitting in English class, with your cheek resting on one hand as you write seemingly meaningless words into your notebook. The lunch bell rings, you gather your belongings and head out of your classroom door to join a stampede of hungry, hormonal teens in the hallway. You spot your old friends and some of them wave, another rolls their eyes, and you wonder, “Uh oh! What did I do?” You keep walking and someone bumps your shoulder, “Move it, dork!” you hear a voice say as the crowd pushes you along. Finally, you make it to the entrance of the cafeteria, and you peek inside. There are so many kids there that you feel your stomach turn as you wonder if you should enter, where you will sit, and even if you should eat. You feel the heaviness of your bookbag and remember that you probably have a ton of homework, and the day is only halfway over ….
Ok, you can snap out of it. What a nightmare, right?
Now, imagine the same scenario, but in the age of social media. Instead of taking notes in class, you would be pretending while mindlessly scrolling through your smartphone. Once the lunch bell rings, you walk into the hallway and see a group of kids doing a TikTok dance while another records, the rest are walking as they scroll or text on their mobile devices, and some are posing awkwardly taking selfies. When your friend rolls his/her eyes at you, you immediately check your social media account to confirm that he/she has unfollowed you and so have half your other friends. You also realize that there is an insulting meme of you making its rounds. When someone bumps your shoulder and says, “Move it, dork,” another student records it and shares the video, too. Finally, you make it to the entrance of the cafeteria and peek inside. All eyes seem to fall on you. “They probably all saw that meme or that video,” you think mortified. You still have a ton of homework. And the day is only halfway over ….
Even writing this hypothetical situation makes me feel uncomfortable and worried for my kids, but this may well be their reality. While some schools prohibit the use of mobile phones or tablets inside the classroom, it is likely that students may sneak a peek and have full access to their devices during lunchtime or immediately after school. A common mistake parents make is comparing their experiences growing up to what their children are going through now. Not only are we living in a different time, but it seems like we are in another world altogether. The worries we had as teens like missing the bus, sitting next to someone we disliked in English class, or being called a nerd because we wear glasses are nothing compared with the problems our adolescents are facing in school. With that in mind, we must take it easy on them, be patient, and give them the benefit of the doubt.
If your child was born in the 21st century, social media has been around since they were toddlers, and, more than likely, they have been exposed to it or are actively engaged in it. Our children were born in the new millennium where technological advances abound. Nowadays, adolescent life revolves around social media and that is a frightening thought. Although it has its perks like helping people stay in touch with family and friends, keep up-to-date with events, promote their businesses and services, and foster creativity, the virtual community can be a scary place. For our youth, social media can open the doors to many problems and evils that are difficult to overcome.
Technology is here to stay, but the teenage years are temporary. Helping our children make better decisions about their social media usage will hopefully help them steer clear of its harms into adulthood. The first step is knowing what the harms of social media can be on our impressionable youth.
Social Media Challenges
Here are some of the most serious issues triggered by misuse and overuse of social media:
Social Media/Internet Addiction
Excessive use of social media platforms can lead to addiction-like behaviors, where individuals compulsively check their accounts and ignore real life to engage in virtual experiences. Think about when you sitting at the dinner table and instead of conversing with you, Aisha is scrolling through her phone. (Helpful tip: Make dinner time a device-free time. Have everyone put their phones away in a place far from the dining room table. If you usually do not have meals together as a family, try to make it a habit to have at least one.)
The online world provides a platform for bullies to torment others with relative anonymity. Cyberbullying can have severe emotional and psychological consequences for its victims. It can encompass verbal and sexual abuse and lead to physical abuse, as well. According to the latest statistics from the Pew Research Center, nearly half of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 (46%) report experiencing cyberbullying, and the most common forms of cyberbullying in order are: offensive name-calling, spreading false rumors, receiving explicit images, stalking behaviors, threats of violence, and having explicit images of them shared without their consent.1
Decreased Academic Performance
Prolonged screen time and constant distraction from social media can disrupt concentration and negatively affect academic performance. If a child is neglecting their studies because of overuse of social media, their grades will take a plunge and some parents may not realize until it is too late.
Depression and Anxiety
Studies have shown a link between heavy social media usage and increased rates of depression, particularly in adolescents who compare their lives to the seemingly perfect ones portrayed on social media. One example was research conducted in Egypt which showed that students who had problematic internet use have higher psychiatric comorbidities, such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies.2 Constant exposure to social media can fuel anxiety, as individuals feel the pressure to fit in, fixate on likes, and maintain a curated online persona. If it happens to us as adults, imagine what our children are experiencing.
The blue light emitted by screens can interfere with sleep patterns, leading to sleep disturbances and insomnia, which can have cascading effects on physical and mental health. According to one study, a group of 576 adolescents in Iran were surveyed on their social media usage and sleep patterns. On average, they reported spending about 7.5 hours per day using smart devices like phones and tablets. Researchers found a connection between prolonged electronic device usage and how long the adolescents slept. The more time they spent on electronic devices, the less they tended to sleep. Interestingly, about 62.3% of the students mentioned that they kept their cell phones turned on in their bedrooms while they slept.3 (Helpful tip: Have your child turn off their electronic devices at a certain time each night and leave them outside their bedrooms if possible.)
Extremist groups can use social media as a recruitment tool, leading vulnerable individuals down dangerous paths of political or religious radicalization. We saw this during the age of ISIS when young girls were allegedly recruited to join the jihadist group via internet groups or social media.4 Since we are living in a society that is highly polarized on political grounds, we have to encourage critical thinking in our communities more than ever.
Social media platforms often present a distorted view of sexuality and body image, especially to impressionable adolescents. Through provocative images, unrealistic beauty standards, and explicit content, children may feel pressured to conform to these ideals. This can lead to issues such as premature sexualization, problems with body image, and unhealthy relationships. Moreover, the ease of sharing explicit content online can expose teenagers to content that is against Islamic values, inappropriate in nature, and that may encourage haram and/or risky behaviors. Parents need to address this aspect of social media and promote healthy discussions about sexuality, consent, and self-respect within an Islamic framework.
Safe Digital Use
Now that we know the dangers, here are some steps parents can help their children make better choices in the digital age.
1. Monitor but do not spy.
It is essential to strike a balance between respecting your child's privacy and ensuring their online safety. Monitoring their online activities can help you stay informed about their interactions and potential risks. However, it is crucial to do so openly and transparently, letting your child know that your intention is to protect them, not to invade their privacy. This approach fosters trust and open communication. There are parental control services and apps that allow parents to restrict content and adjust parameters on their children’s devices. Look into your devices and mobile services to see what works for your family.
2. Set limits while understanding their needs.
Setting limits is a good idea, but we should also recognize that our children need social interaction and digital engagement. While putting restrictions on screen time is important, it is equally crucial to consider their age, maturity, and individual needs. Your 7-year-old may not use a mobile device at all, but your 17-year-old may need it for school and to keep in touch with friends. Communicate to establish reasonable boundaries that both respect their desire for independence and ensure their safety.
3. Discuss potential dangers and share your concerns.
Initiate regular conversations with your child about the potential dangers of social media, including cyberbullying, privacy issues, and exposure to inappropriate content. Share your concerns in a non-judgmental manner and encourage them to express their feelings and experiences. You may include narrations from Islamic tradition to drive the point home gently such as this one. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
“The believer does not insult others, he does not curse others, he is not vulgar, and he is not shameless.”
This sincerity and open dialogue will help them feel more comfortable discussing problems they encounter.
4. Build trust between you and your children.
Create a strong foundation of trust in your relationship. When it comes to teenagers, it is better to speak less and listen more. Let your children know that they can confide in you without fear of judgment or punishment. When they encounter challenges or face online threats, they will be more likely to turn to you for guidance and support, rather than trying to handle problems on their own.
5. Offer alternatives for healthy activities.
Encourage your children to balance their online activities with offline pursuits that promote their physical and mental health. Suggest engaging hobbies such as sports, hiking, arts and crafts, or learning a new skill which not only provide enjoyable and productive outlets but also help them develop essential life skills and social connections beyond the world of social media.
6. Check-in with their teachers.
Collaborate with your child's teachers to stay informed about their behavior and experiences at school. Teachers can provide valuable insights into any concerning changes in behavior, academic performance, or peer relationships that may be linked to online experiences. This partnership can help address issues promptly and effectively.
7. Pray for their protection and success.
Last, but not least – and I am sure that for any concerned parent, it goes without saying – keep your child or children in your prayers constantly. Praying for your child's protection and success is the most meaningful and effective way to support them. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
“Three prayers are undoubtedly answered: the prayer of one who is wronged, the prayer of the traveler, and the prayer of a father for his child.”
While technology and social media are going to continue to evolve, our children will only be teenagers for a short period of time. Parents must play an active role in helping them navigate the digital world responsibly. We have to stop thinking “Not my kid!” or “My children would never.” Instead, we have to prepare for every possible scenario – no matter how outrageous or hurtful it may be to you as a Muslim parent.
Remember that even prophets went through difficulties with their children – think about Prophet Adam and his two sons, one of whom killed the other; remember Prophet Nuh and his son who refused to board the ark and drowned; or recall Prophet Yaqub and his ten boys who threw their younger brother into a well, peace be upon them.
None of us are immune to potential conflicts and disappointments from our children; we seek refuge in Allah from being put through these difficult trials. Nevertheless, prayer, open communication, setting boundaries, and promoting a healthy balance between online and offline activities can go a long way in safeguarding them against the potential harms of social media, ensuring they transition into adulthood with resilience and a strong heart.
Wendy Díaz is a Puerto Rican Muslim writer, award-winning poet, translator, and mother of six (ages ranging from infant to teen). She is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam, a non-profit organization that produces educational resources about Islam in Spanish (hablamosislam.org). She has written, illustrated, and published over a dozen children’s books and currently lives with her family in Maryland. Follow Wendy Díaz on social media @authorwendydiaz and @hablamosislam.