Unless you live under a rock, you've probably jumped on the social media bandwagon in one form or another. Maybe you use Facebook occasionally to keep in touch with relatives, or perhaps you're on Twitter constantly, posting updates to friends and followers. However (and how often) you use social media, it's important to realize that online connections come with their own set of pitfalls, along with the positive effects. Both adults and their children should be aware of these dangers, and how to avoid them.

For Adults: Fighting FOMO

Researchers have recognized that, for some people, using social media can lead to negative emotions. A German study jointly conducted by Humboldt University of Berlin and Technical University of Darmstadt surveyed people after they'd been on Facebook, and more than a third expressed feelings such as frustration and envy after viewing friends' postings and photos. Particularly vulnerable were Facebook users who didn't post anything of their own but only perused others' postings.

This so-called "FOMO" (fear of missing out) arises because, for the most part, people carefully curate Facebook posts to reflect their best possible reality. Consider the words of William Scheckel, an adjunct professor of social media at New York Institute of Technology in New York: "No one posts their crabgrass on Facebook. So when you can't help but feel envious that so-and-so did this or that, remember there's a big part of their story you'll never see." This is especially true if you use social media as your primary form of communication and don't actually see or talk on the phone with your online friends. Keep this in mind if you feel envious and inadequate after viewing someone’s Facebook post about a fabulous family vacation, and remember that the happy family standing on the beach at sunset may have neglected to mention the meltdown their little one had on the plane, or the food poisoning that hit them halfway through the trip.

To combat FOMO, Scheckel suggests posting more on your own social media platforms. That way, "You'll be the person doing the cool things," he points out. "And you’ll find your friends will engage with you, and that interacting with them is really what you were missing." But whether you put things out there for all to see or choose to stay private, Scheckel recommends you try to be happy for those whose postings you view: "These are friends we've chosen to connect with. Their successes—their joys—are ours."

For Kids: Staying Safe

Many parents wonder if there's an age below which social media use should be discouraged. Legally, at least, there is: The Federal Trade Commission's Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is designed to prevent web sites from collecting personal information on children under age 13 without their parents’ permission. In fact, most social-media platforms prohibit those under the age of 13 from opening an account at all.

Scheckel agrees with this rule. "I think 13 is a good age to start letting your child act independently digitally," he says, cautioning that parents still need to teach their children how to go online safely. "I would say that's a good minimum age for a smart phone, too." According to Scheckel, texting tends to start earlier—at about age 10 or 11—because parents give kids low-tech phones in order to keep in touch with them during after-school hours and at friends' houses.

But no matter how digitally savvy your child is, navigating online relationships can be tricky. For instance, bullying has been in the news a lot lately, with kids and teens using the Internet to tease, torment, and taunt one another. Basically, what used to take place in the schoolyard is now being played out on screens, and the consequences can be far-reaching and long lasting. Additionally, young social media users sometimes reveal personal information that can come back to haunt them, either by stirring up drama in their peer group or by attracting predators. What can you do to help prevent these pitfalls of online social life? Scheckel offers this advice:

  • Prevent the problem before it starts. Start talking to your children early and often about their online activities. Be gentle but consistent, without prying or demanding.
  • Stress that the Internet is for connecting with friends and people your child has already met. "It's not a place to meet new people because you have no way of knowing who they really are," Scheckel warns.
  • Urge your child to never post anything she wouldn’t want the whole school to see. Anyone can forward her posts with the touch of a button.
  • Help them avoid drama. If your child gets involved in a conversation that's become heated, suggest that he turn off his computer to give the situation a chance to settle.
  • Seek help. If your child is threatened with physical injury or violence, don't hesitate to get the police involved.

William Scheckel reviewed this article. 


William Scheckel, adjunct professor of social media, New York Institute of Technology. E-mail and phone conversations with source, July 2014.

Krasnova H, Wenninger H, Widjaja T, and Buxmann P. "Facebook Makes Users Envious and Dissatisfied." (2013) Presented at the 11th International Conference on Wirtschaftsinformatik, Leipzig, Germany. Accessed July 22, 2014.

"Stop Bullying on the Spot." Stopbullying.gov. Accessed July 20, 2014.