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Summer, social media, and safety
Kate Templeton
Kate Templeton (Submitted photo.)

By Kate Templeton

It’s summertime, which means kids have lots of free time for sports, sun, and yes, screens. That means it’s also a good time for parents to talk to their children about the smart use of phones and social media.

In 2022, the Pew Research Center surveyed American teenagers and their parents about social media. A whopping 95 percent reported using social media, with a third of them using it “almost constantly.” First, the good news: A majority felt that social media helps teenagers feel more accepted (58 percent), connects them to others for support during tough times (67 percent), provides a creative outlet (71 percent), and connects them to what’s going on in their friends’ lives.

But we know all too well many teens may be negatively affected by social media. It can distract from homework and family activities, disrupt sleep, lead to an unrealistic body image, expose some teens to cyberbullying, and can even expose some teens to online predators, who might try to exploit or extort them.

As outreach coordinator for Tharros Place, a nonprofit that supports minor victims of human trafficking in the Coastal Empire, I try to educate the community about the ways traffickers can use technology to remotely identify, recruit, and abuse victims. Social media is a common venue, as traffickers use these platforms to gain insight into a person’s life and manipulate them by offering empathy and support, especially those with poor family relationships or those who feel alone. In 2020, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline identified a 125 percent increase in reports of recruitment into trafficking through Facebook and a 95% increase in reports of recruitment on Instagram compared to the previous year.

But we are not powerless to combat this abuse. Encourage your teens to keep personal information personal and never, ever meet up with someone they meet online. And be on the lookout for risk factors such as low self-esteem, low self-confidence, and low self-worth. Behaviors such as withdrawing from family and friends, being overly obsessed with being online, hiding device screens from others, or receiving expensive gifts from someone unknown to the family warrants an intervention as early as possible.

The good news is friends and family are the most likely way for a victim to connect to help. While online trafficking does occur and it has increased since the pandemic, the majority of trafficking victims know their trafficker before their victimization and rarely is trafficking a "kidnapper in a white van at the park" type of situation.

If parents keep the lines of communication open, follow the rules themselves, and establish trust, it will be easier to have the hard conversations that are bound to come. It’s incumbent on all of us to build our community’s young people into adults brimming with confidence, self-respect, and courage.

Kate Templeton is Outreach Coordinator of Tharros Place, a 501(c)(3) that takes its name from the Greek word for courage. In 2023, Tharros Place opened a 12-bed residential home to address underlying trauma and cultivate a culture of courage for girls ages 12 to 17.