MySociaLife

Mental Health

Social Media Filters: A Cause of Body Dysmorphia or Just A Form of Creative Expression?

Article by Havana Dauncey.

Have you taken a selfie lately and been compelled to swipe through the filters to find the perfect one that gives you that extra glow?

Well, it’s safe to say that filters have revolutionalized the selfie game. In fact, 87% of teens aged 13-21 use a filter on social media

So what’s drawing teens so strongly to alter their images online? What does this mean for teens of today and their mental health? And are all filters bad, or is there another side that we’re not seeing?

Let’s break down everything you need to know about social media filters.

What is a social media filter?

Social media filter (n.): An in-camera photo editing effect that can be applied to images before or after the photo is shot, found on each social media app and sometimes referred to as augmented reality (AR).

Filters began long before social media. Remember the front camera mirror and distorting effect that captivated young teens back in 2012? Well, these harmless editing effects have evolved into something a lot bigger, and potentially dangerous, thanks to the birth of social media.

Selfie filters, the social media filters we’re referring to, first came to light on Snapchat in 2015 as one of the main unique features drawing users to the platform. But what started as innocent doggy ears and stuck-out tongues has now evolved into a sophisticated AI that’s made it impossible to discern what’s real and what’s not — in the form of the infamous ‘beauty filters’.

Nearly 1 in 5 teens use a beauty filter on every post. Beauty filters are specifically designed to add make-up, remove blemishes, and change facial features to make you look more ‘beautiful,’ often appealing more to girls than boys. 

Why are teens drawn to use social media filters?

Phones have become the new mirrors. We no longer reach into purses to pull out a compact to check our faces or touch up some make-up. We now go straight for the selfie camera on our phones. But selfies have become more than just a convenient mirror in our pockets. They’ve become a figurative mirror that teens use as a representation of who they are, both externally and internally, attaching their identity to the frozen image of themselves on a screen.

Teens are at the stage in their development where they’re searching for their place in society, trying on different identities to see which one fits best and which one gets the best response. Taking and posting selfies online has become the new way for teens to share their identity with the world and measure the response they get from their peers.

Thus, teens are drawn to selfies with the hopes of gaining reassurance of who they are in the form of positive attention from others. This is where filters come in. Like trying on different identities, teens try on different filters to see which ones receive the best response.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say a young teen posts an unfiltered selfie on her Instagram story and doesn’t get the enthusiastic response of likes and DMs from her peers that she was hoping for. She swipes right to the story feature and starts curiously scrolling through the wide range of filters. She stops on one that softens her pores, hides her acne, flushes her cheeks and lips, and slightly enlarges her eyes with a touch of mascara. Now, it looks so real, and she looks almost like the famous models she follows on Instagram. So she posts the new selfie. Suddenly, her Instagram blows up with likes, heart emojis, and comments like “hot,” and “gorgeous,” from girls and boys alike. Her heart flutters from the attention, instantly deleting the old one, and staring at the new version of herself with a proud smile.

This is a simplified story of the spark that ignites teens’ drive towards using filters. When their self-esteem is low and they need a bit of reassurance, they learn that they get the best response and the most attention from altering their appearance to match society’s standards of beauty. And beauty filters conveniently give them the power to do it.

So while AR is just a nickname these filters have picked up, there’s a bit more truth in it than you may think. It’s not just the reality of the screen these filters are augmenting, but the reality for the teens outside the screen as well.

What do filters mean to the teens of today?

You might be wondering, “Editing photos isn’t anything new. The media has been altering bodies with photoshop to match unrealistic beauty standards for decades. What makes this so different?”

Well, thanks to social media filters, we no longer only compare ourselves to a doctored image of a stranger in a magazine but to doctored images of ourselves. Teens look at these filtered images of themselves and see a superior version, reinforced by the approval of their peers and society.

So in an effort to find their identities and get closer to their real selves, social media filters have the completely opposite effect — teens dissociate from their identities by idealizing a version of themselves that isn’t real.

The big question to ask here in terms of beauty filters is — who is setting these ideal beauty standards?

Well, the honest truth is that beauty standards have always been modelled after the white, western, and eurocentric aesthetic. And this is no different for the parameters of the beauty filters. While you may think that the AI used to define these filters is objective and unbiased, it’s simply not true. The biases and preferences of the people who programmed them are inevitably going to creep in, including racism, sexism, and implicit biases.

So what does this mean for diversity? It means that most filters automatically lighten the skin, eyes, and hair, distorting their facial features into something foreign. It means that teenagers that don’t match this narrow, hegemonic idea of beauty are subconsciously told they’re not beautiful based purely on their ethnicity.

Additionally, the ways in which these filters distort the face, positioning it into the ‘golden ratio,’ enlarging the eyes, shrinking the nose, and removing every blemish and freckle, are physically impossible. It sets a standard so high that no one can reach it no matter how hard they try, and some die trying.

61% of teens say that using beauty filters make them feel worse about their appearance in real life, stating that there’s a correlation between these filter and power body image. So it’s clear that social media beauty filters not only tell teenagers that they aren’t beautiful enough, but they also give them a biased, unrealistic, and impossible version of themselves — a constant comparison and reminder that they aren’t enough the way that they are.

The impact on teens’ mental health

Mix the teenage desire for public approval of their appearance with insanely real ‘beauty’ filters that turn your face into the golden ratio, and you get the perfect storm for body image issues and body dysmorphia to brew.

Body dysmorphia disorder (n.): characterized by the constant worrying about one’s physical appearance, often fixating on physical flaws or perceived defects.

These social media filters not only distort the image on the screen but the teenager’s body image of themselves. They notice how different they are from the filtered version of themselves and start to fixate on those differences, perceiving themselves as inferior.

So when teens look in the mirror, or their selfie cameras, they no longer see what they are but rather what they are not. Teens become susceptible to body dysmorphia and other body image issues. This pushes teens towards trying to change their real appearance to match the one on the screen, leading to unhealthy ‘beauty hacks,’ dieting, and even cosmetic surgery.

Are all filters that bad?

Filters come in all shapes and sizes, and maybe not all of them have to be a concern for your teens’ mental health. In fact, most filters out there don’t care about making you look beautiful, they aim to make you look silly, funny, and ridiculous in the best way. These reignite that innocent fun and creativity that filters were originally designed for.

Some examples of creative filters include baby filters, beard filters, gender swaps, character-based filters, and an infinite amount more. There’s even a filter that distorts your facial features to make them look unappealing, shrinking your eyes and changing your proportions so that when you turn the filter off, you feel better about your actual appearance.

Just take a look at TikTok — many TikTok trends, aimed to earn some laughs from viewers, are centred around bizarre and goofy filters paired with some really clever jokes.

These filters often encourage teens to stop seeing their selfies as a reflection of their identity, as the filters are often so ridiculous, it’s impossible to connect the selfies to themselves in any meaningful way. It helps them take themselves less seriously and be okay with looking silly.

With the advanced technology and AI of today, you can pretty much do anything you want with filters, giving teens unlimited creative power that shouldn’t be tainted by the negative effects of beauty filters.

So what’s the final verdict on social media filters?

Filter — on or off?

Social media filters cover a wide range of editing effects, making it difficult to put them all in one box. Most filters can be used as a form of creative expression and for fits of laughter between friend groups, encouraging teens to not take themselves and their external appearance too seriously.

However, we can’t say the same for beauty filters. Beauty filters aren’t inherently bad; it’s all in the intention with which they’re used. However, most of the time, they attract vulnerable teens looking to bolster their self-esteem with a filtered facade, damaging their mental health by making them susceptible to body image issues and body dysmorphia. So it’s best to make sure these filters stay turned off.

What we can do moving forward

Knowing the harm these beauty filters can cause, it’s our responsibility as parents, teachers, and guardians to take the power out of the beauty filters and put it back into the hands of our children.

You can do this by:

  • Being aware of the filters teens are using and why.
  • Talking to them about the effects of the filters, the importance of establishing their identity separate from selfies, and the reality and relativity of ideal beauty standards.
  • Encouraging your children, as well as influencers, to go unfiltered, highlighting the beauty of authenticity.
  • Looking out for the signs of a struggling mental health and body image, ready to give them all the help if needed.
  • Showing your children how to be active consumers by telling the social media platforms what they need to do to help minimize the negative effects of their filters.

If we teach our children how to use filters responsibly, filters can once again be those fun and harmless effects that compel teens to spend hours laughing at their faces wave up and down the screen. So let’s turn off our filters and sit down with our children to have those unfiltered, authentic, and crucial conversations to help our children be safer and excel online.

Click here to find out more about how to learn more about the digital world and how to empower your children online.

The Ukraine War on TikTok: What We and Our Children Can Learn From It

Article written by Havana Dauncey

TikTok is becoming the most popular app in our teens’ and pre-teens’ lives. Despite the 13+ age limit, children aged 4-15 are spending an average of 75 minutes on TikTok per day. As a parent or teacher, you can’t help but wonder what they’re watching on there for that long, especially when a war is currently being broadcasted live uncensored on social media apps including TikTok.

So many questions arise for a lot of adults — What is TikTok? Where do teens and pre-teens get their news on the Ukraine war? What effect does exposure to the Ukraine war have on teens and pre-teens? Can adolescents tell the difference between fact and fallacy? Are there any benefits from TikTok? What can parents do to help their children rise above it, block it or understand the motivations of those posting about it — critical thinking is essential!

Let’s deep dive into the Ukraine war on TikTok and explore the effects it may have on adolescents.

Where do kids get their news?

Let’s start with the basics — to find out what type of news teens are getting, you have to first figure out where they’re getting it from. Most teens, over 50%, get their news from social media apps, particularly TikTok.

Anyone across the world can post content on TikTok in real-time and uncensored, so it’s no surprise children and teens are accessing loads of content regarding the Ukraine war. It’s also easier for them to digest news from their favourite influencer speaking their ‘teen talk’ (or kid talk) than a monotonous news anchor they hear in the background.

Adolescents, willingly or not, are becoming curious about the world and its affairs.  Some are even taking on the role of social justice warrior. For example, child and teen TikTok users spammed Vladimir Putin’s fan accounts with #vladdydaddy as an act of protest, pleading “Vladdy Daddy please no war…” This may seem like a small act, but it represents teens becoming active citizens in the world they belong to, standing up for what they believe in.

TikTok as a news source is highly complex. Here’s why:

  • TikTok’s short-form-content formula rewards hooks to grab users’ attention and gives little time for viewers to decide who’s the hero and who’s the villain.
  • TikTok uses an algorithm to filter content for its users. To be honest, no one really knows how it works how the algorithm works. All we know is that its main goal is to keep users watching, focusing on watch time and presenting it on the For You Page (FYP). We get fed more of what we click on, so clicking on fake news and violence ensures we get more of it, driving adolescents deeper into a rabbit hole of falsehoods or hideous imagery.
  • Because our brains are predisposed to focus on movement and novelty, adolescents are drawn to videos that are scary and shocking.
  • Our brains process video much faster than text, especially with the help of music. Teens and pre-teens are then presented with an unsettling reality where a horrific scene is paired with their favourite pop song.
  • More disillusion is created by teens and pre-teens watching their favourite influencers living life one day and then hiding in a bomb shelter the next.
  • The war-torn scenes are juxtaposed with TikTok’s creative, humorous and light-hearted tone.

Interestingly, it’s TikTok’s use of pop music and humorous tone that allows us to contextualise what we’re seeing, process it and distance ourselves from the hard and unfathomable reality in Ukraine.

It’s a classic pop-culture approach, but this generation misses the motivation of publishers in whatever they post, seeking likes, followers, celebrity at a high cost. Different from generations before that may have employed their own ways of visualising or voicing their views, this stick of dynamite has the added fuse of virality and global attention for publishing something. The rewards are different, making the motivation different.

Thus, TikTok constructs a complex environment for adolescents to receive their news.

Could this exposure to violence lead to desensitization?

What makes adolescents’ exposure to the Ukraine war so troubling is teens’ and pre-teens’ inability to separate fact from fantasy. Some may think it’s all a joke while others may believe they’re entering World War 3.

What about desensitization? For years, this topic has circled the effects of violent video games. But according to the research, there isn’t any long-term desensitization from these video games. However, while the varied research makes it difficult to draw a conclusion, we’re finding that this exposure to violence can still affect more vulnerable individuals.

Secondary trauma also plays a role on TikTok — this is when you hear about trauma and it sticks with you. This triggers negative emotions and can be triggered again later on. So for adolescents that are more vulnerable to violence, this secondary trauma becomes very real.

What does exposure to violence on TikTok mean for adolescents and parents?

  • This highlights the importance of the 13+ age restriction, as teens are a lot more capable of differentiating between fact and fantasy.
  • It’s also important to protect our children by promoting critical thinking so that they question fantasy and try to uncover the facts.
  • Parents should aim to prepare their children so that they know what to expect and know that they have a choice in what they see.
  • There should be a focus on building resilience in them to give them the strength on their own to be able to turn off a video when it’s not serving them.

Misinformation vs disinformation — what’s the difference?

The question is not only can teens and pre-teens understand the difference between fact and fantasy, but also between fact and fallacy. Most social media apps, especially TikTok, have little to no fact-checking tool. As adults, we know that we can’t take anything on social media at face value — more often than not, adults can tell the truth from the lies and are able to check their sources. But adolescents have not yet acquired this skill, making them vulnerable to both misinformation and disinformation.

Misinformation and disinformation are often used interchangeably, but there’s a distinct difference between the two:

  • Misinformation: Incorrect information presented either intentionally or unintentionally.
  • Disinformation: False information that’s deliberately spread with the intention to deceive.

While both are harmful, disinformation is often even more dangerous because of its direct intention to propagate lies. Both forms are very prevalent on TikTok. People spread misinformation for the sake of views and virality.

For example, in some content, visuals are matched with the wrong audio to create a dramatic and shocking effect and portray something that isn’t real. Footage from video games has even been used and believed to be real footage from Ukraine. Teens and pre-teens are constantly exposed to this ‘fake news’, believing it and letting it influence their perception of the world.

How can we protect our children from the constant waves of mis-/dis-information? We educate them. MySociaLife’s very first module, of its total 8 lessons of 60 minutes each, teaches children not only how to fact-check, but why it’s important. We can also teach them to report any misinformation they find. Just like everyone else, children don’t want to be tricked or duped — reporting gives them the power over the people trying to deceive them. 

Is TikTok all bad? What are the upsides?

Like everything, TikTok has both light and dark corners. And its light side offers our children limitless opportunities to learn, grow and excel — they just have to know how to find it.

Here are some upsides of TikTok worth celebrating:

  • Increased awareness of the global environment: Adolescents are becoming interested and aware of what’s happening in the world and current events, all by themselves — some are even now pushing their parents to get involved and become active citizens themselves.
  • Promotion of empathy and compassion: By receiving first-person accounts, often in real-time, adolescents gain a perceptive they never would have been exposed to otherwise, forcing them to consider what the world is like outside of their own perception and promoting a deep sense of empathy in the new generation.
  • An exciting new world for creativity: TikTok has become an outlet of creativity for a lot of users, expressing their extraordinary skills, talents and hard work, creating masterpieces of a whole new art form. 
  • Entrepreneurial potential: TikTok holds incredible power for businesses where they can gain wide exposure, build loyal communities and drive sales — teens’ exposure to this can inspire them to create a business of their own, utilizing TikTok as a key to success.

Every child is different. Some will suffer from the influence of TikTok, others may be more indifferent. The trick is to know which category your child may sit in and to pay careful attention to their behaviour to see if there are any effects — lethargic, fearful, and self-conscious are often normal teen responses, but are you seeing anything that’s concerning and noticeable? Don’t ignore the signs. 

And for every TikTok user, take a look at what they’re watching, be interested, ask questions (as opposed to telling) and use the opportunity to educate yourself without becoming too lofty and forging distance between you and adolescents. Connection and trust are key. Without it, they’re on an island alone, and you’ll find it hard to support them. 

Top Tips — how can parents help their children learn from this?

The final question to ask is — with everything that’s been discussed, how can parents and teachers help their children learn, grow and excel on TikTok despite the potential dangers of violence and misinformation circulating on social media apps?

We give them the most powerful tool in the world — education.

Here are ways to educate your children so that they are aware, protected and equipped to deal with both the light and the dark sides of TikTok:

  • Talk often, talk always: Start the conversation on technology, news, war and how it relates to social media — this establishes trust between you and your child.
  • Focus on preparation and resilience: Teens and pre-teens who are prepared and have resilience are much less easily affected by what they might see on TikTok, plus these are essential tools that determine their success in life, not just in surviving TikTok.
  • Educate yourself on TikTok: If you haven’t already, it’s about time you get to know the place your child spends so much time in — this will give you a much wider understanding of how it works and the content your children are exposed to so that you can make educated decisions on how to help them.
  • Teach your children how to curate their content: Teaching adolescents how to curate their content so that they have the ultimate say in what enters their lives puts the power back in their hands and encourages them to think critically about which content they want to see.
  • Explore the parental controls: While their effectiveness is undecided, TikTok does have parental controls worth taking a look at and discussing with your child. You can even teach your child how to become a productive client of TikTok by letting TikTok know what parental controls you want and what they should improve.

TikTok doesn’t have to be all that scary if we teach our children how to use and consume it productively, responsibly and with lots of awareness. If we guide our children towards the light of TikTok, a whole new world of possibilities and opportunities await, leaving them empowered as active citizens of the world with their future in their own hands.

Expert on SA’s Anti-Bullying Week: “Why are South Africans cyberbullying?”

South Africa has a problem that is getting harder to fix

“How would you know if your child was being cyberbullied?” That is the chilling question that we posed during this week’s Anti-Bullying Week in South Africa. Originated by the Anti-Bullying Alliance, this year’s theme is ‘One Kind Word.’

“The reality is that a surprising number of teens, and even pre-teens, won’t share that with you, as much as 40% have admitted they don’t want to open up, because they are worried parents may get angry, or be disappointed, or cause them embarrassment. Yet, students share this with us in schools and feedback in our online safety program. So we need to deeply rethink our approach.” 

Many adults hear the term ‘bullying’ or ‘cyberbullying’ and can easily assume this is the behaviour of immature school cliques. Still, in reality, bullying is driven by power dynamics, fear, insecurity, anxiety or personal exposure to aggressive and dominant behaviour that results in harassment and the invisible erosion of self-esteem. The impact causes the victim harm and can also extend into repeated behaviours by the perpetrator later in life, directed towards a colleague, employee, spouse, or partner.

Several studies in recent years have shown South Africa has rated in the top five in the world for cyberbullying – identified as when a child causes physical or emotional harm. Online, the behaviour is peaking at the age of 13, 14 and 15 years of age. Our one-hour lesson specifically covers all forms of online abuse, such as catfishing, outing, flaming, trolling, shaming, exclusion, image-based violence, and that’s just a few of them. We dig into the topic of empathy and show the consequences which can go as far as some students committing suicide. Cyberbullying is an invisible tormentor. It hides behind screens, evading parents and teachers. Even friends can miss the signs. Low self-esteem can make kids assume they deserve to be bullied or inhibit their ability to recognise it. Tweens and teens fear retaliation and worry that speaking up will only make things worse.

The challenge is not just technological but environmental. We want to blame devices for cyberbullying, but it’s more of a tool for bullying and not a reason for it. We have to understand the anxiety and anger that sits within our society, which has been aggravated by socio-economic challenges, the isolation during the pandemic and a surge of online users that have yet to be equipped by educators. That’s why bullying in South Africa is a crisis and not just a problem. Due to the leadership vacuum in this country, financial pressure in homes, and disconnected life skills and digital education, kids are acting out online in the same way they used to act out physically. South Africa is one of the more prominent cyberbullying nations in some studies. Education departments need to realise the powerful influence of social media and games and use them intelligently, re-directing the use of devices and platforms towards positive outcomes instead of negative ones. It is possible, but we are way behind right now. There’s a generational and technological divide.

According to Legalwise, South Africa’s CyberCrimes Act “criminalises a wide variety of cybercrimes. However, examples of crimes specifically associated with cyberbullying include electronic messages or social media posts towards a person that incite or threaten that person with violence or damage to their property; and the disclosure of intimate images of an identifiable person without their consent or link an identifiable person to such an image in the description of a data message. Intimate images refer to nude images, images of a person’s private parts (even if that person is wearing clothes), or edited images where a person is identifiable. With regards to children, these cybercrimes will also form part of the Child Justice Act 75 of 2008, which regulates how children will be dealt with when they are accused of committing crimes and what consequences they will face. Imprisonment may be imposed for children between the ages of 10 and 18, but only as a last resort and for the shortest period possible.”

Our best shot lies in education. Suppose we can assume that robust values-driven leadership may not change any time soon. In that case, we only have the opportunity to show the youth the benefits of digital citizenship, empathy, communication in conflict, how to manage cyberbullying, and how to self-regulate. These skills are something every child can call on when an adult may not know what’s happening. It’s their armour. There has to be an incentive for them. Every small positive decision – every kind word – can lead to a better path in life, but someone needs to light the way. Ironically, teaching them through social media and popular culture and showing them their choices and the consequences really do work. They can relate to it. Our program has proven to have a real impact on students in acting as that beacon that shows them the fork in the road to make better choices.

World Mental Health Day: How can we make “mental health care a reality for teens and tweens?”

“If Instagram is such a positive force, have we seen a golden age of teenage mental health in the last 10 years? No, we have seen escalating rates of suicide and depression amongst teenagers,” she continued. “There’s a broad swath of research that supports the idea that the usage of social media amplifies the risk of these mental health harms.” These were the words of Frances Haugen, Facebook’s whistleblower testifying during a Senate Committee this week, just a few days before World Mental Health Day.

Mental health care for all: let’s make it a reality, is a theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day celebrated on 10th October, supported by the World Health Organisation. After 20 months and three waves of a pandemic, lockdowns and school and business interruptions, the task is as daunting this year as perhaps any before it.

 

“There’s a broad swath of research that supports the idea that the usage of social media amplifies the risk of these mental health harms.” –Frances Haugen, Facebook

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) notes that nine percent of all teenage deaths are by suicide, adding that suicide is the second leading and fastest-growing cause of death among young South Africans in the 15-25 age group.

Cassey Chambers, SADAG’s Operations Director, says 90 percent of adolescents who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness – frequently, depression. While some people do have a genetic tendency towards depression, others develop it as a result of loneliness, social isolation, bullying, loss, abuse, and conflict. There are additional contributors that this generation is contending with – the increased exposure to the news at an earlier age and the tendency to ‘doomscroll’ on social media or compare their life to others.

The first detailed study of how social media affects the mental health of young users. has found that increased participation in social media networks, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp and others, is associated with increased psychological distress. With the effects almost twice as severe among girls.

We are seeing the effects of social media first-hand when we engage with teens and tweens about their online life during our 8-lesson in-school program.

“Students tell us about the pressure they feel around life online, and many agree that it can bend their character or values, leading to inappropriate or out of character behaviour,” says Dean McCoubrey, our founder – we also train parents, teachers and psychologists to help children feel safer and behave smarter online. 

 

The increased exposure to the news at an earlier age and the tendency to ‘doomscroll’ on social media or compare their life to others.

“This age group is not adequately equipped to manage the complexity of the varied risks, temptations and dangers online. When parents and teachers understand the development stages of kids and how these devices and platforms influence their neurochemistry at this vulnerable and immature stage, we can all start to grasp why this is happening,” he says. “Mental health is affected when we fail to have enough ‘in person’ contact, secondly a lack of exercise and thirdly repetitive thought patterns that are negative media exposure, known as doomscrolling. The gradual erosion of self-esteem that teens end up with, after comparing themselves to their peers highlight reels and the mental fatigue from cyberbullying or online intimidation also play a role.”

Education will have to play a bigger role in making mental health care a reality for teens and tweens. The detrimental effects of social media can be reduced by also adding in the training of parents, teachers and school counsellors. We created four programs, and not just a student program, because all the adults in the chain of care have to contribute. Not enough people understand the complexity of how humans react and respond to social media, and what the consequences are, especially because teens can keep things quite hushed.

Between 30 and 40% of teens and pre-teens say they cannot share their concerns with their parents, aligning with global data and emphasizing that schools and parents should take children’s social media experiences much more seriously.

It doesn’t help that teens and pre-teens explore the internet without the one-on-one guidance of parents or teachers, and even if filters are applied, they stumble onto content that they’re not yet able to process. 

Our program is pro-technology, which is changing the world in so many creative, entertaining, and philanthropic ways, but the fact remains that children need more digital education.

 

It doesn’t help that teens and pre-teens explore the internet without the one-on-one guidance of parents or teachers

So many kids are so ”social” and yet so many are also feeling alone – it’s the great paradox of social media. We will look back on this time, in a decade or two, and ask why we didn’t prepare our children more carefully and give them the tools to think critically and self-regulate.

World Mental Health Day gives parents and children the opportunity to start conversations about mental illness, emphasising that there is no shame in struggling with mental health while re-establishing those vital real-life connections. With 75 percent of teen suicides having spoken about their intention before proceeding, there’s a strong possibility that parents, teachers and friends that listen carefully to depressed teens may indeed be able to act in time to save a life. 

TODAY, World Youth Skills Day: Unemployment driving unrest in South Africa

Is there a way we can reverse youth unemployment in this country? 

In the midst of South Africa’s deep unrest, 15th July is World Youth Skills Day. Tragically, the country’s youth unemployment rate reached a new record of 32.6%, the highest since the quarterly labour force survey began in 2008, totalling 7.242 million people out of work.
Employment lies at the centre of many socio-economic ills, given its capacity to fill time, provide purpose, generate income and drive greater equality. But employment can only be driven by skills training.  

Africa is burdened with an additional challenge: many struggle with literacy, due to the poor delivery of basic education. So, where might hope and inspiration be found in the next decade? In our pockets.

Smart device costs continue to come down, and new manufacturers are bringing in devices at lower costs, as well as data prices slowly dropping, meaning increasing access as we move through this decade, and more opportunity to upskill via online learning on a phone, with a growing resource of training platforms which offers free training programs like Coursera, Udemy, Udacity and Khan Academy.
But, explains Dean McCoubrey, Founder of MySociaLife, South Africa’s leading digital education and media literacy program, “There are many promises various governments have made about their promise of leadership in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), but how many understand the foundational digital skills required? You can’t just jump into robotics or coding, you need to understand what it is to be a digital citizen to embrace the free resources of the internet. Without it, you are driving a vehicle without a licence, or a map. How do you explore and grow safely?”

McCoubrey explains that the foundation is required in the same way previous generations were taught at length to hold a pencil and use those words they create more wisely. By contrast, increasingly, the internet is seeing spikes of misinformation and cyberbullying.

“With the basics in place of media literacy – understanding media, its power and influences, and fake news – as well as digital literacy such as privacy, cybersecurity and handling technology carefully, we can shift gear into exploration and expansion. We can find avenues of income. MySociaLife shows teens where they can learn photography for free, for example, and then show them where to sell their photos or videos,” adds McCoubrey.

Teens and pre-teens use the apps and devices so intuitively, and it’s a huge advantage. Some children are poor in school but brilliant online, which means there could be an alternative for young South Africans that could transcend the lack of quality basic education.

“We stand at a doorway to vault over other African countries, but we need guidance to know which keys will open it and prepare Generation Z for a 4IR future. We need to focus on basic digital education as well before it’s too late and we miss a glaring opportunity.”

Looking at TikTok and other social media and gaming platforms, popular culture has youth fascinated and motivated, with approximately 60% of its 1bn users globally found in the GenZ age range. We already sing, dance, shoot videos and photos, why not build on this, and start to use these skills? What if we taught them how to do it safely, intelligently and with purpose. Minecraft For Education, for example, is a way to game and code at the same time, learning a new “language”.

MySociaLife approaches the challenge by not only teaching kids foundational digital skills but also their teachers and parents on how to direct youth to opportunities and realise potential, while at the same time ensuring online safety too – “two sides of the same coin.” A South African EdTech training platform, it allows schools to simply log in and learn using eight hours of video training for learners aged 8 to 18 including subjects such as online safety, privacy, cybersecurity, digital footprint, bullying and intimidation, fake news, and ways to build skills and generate income online.

The World Economic Forum listed its top 10 skills for “The Future of Work in 2025” and these included technology monitoring, use and control, and also technology design and programming, critical thinking, social influence, reasoning and stress tolerance. “We teach many of these skills to kids in schools and they respond with such energy and enthusiasm. It’s something that ignites them.”“On World Youth Skills Day, this is a call to the government to understand both the challenges and the opportunities of media and digital literacy – and to accept how much they need to quickly grasp with regard to evolving popular culture, pre-teen and teen usage of devices simply because of the generational divide and technology divide. It could deliver a huge shift in employment, direction and momentum over time. We are completely missing this right now,” says McCoubrey.


“Even kids that are literate and have unlimited access are not fully utilising their devices and media platforms to their full potential. The outcome of digital citizenship is a more aware and responsible society because it reduces the negativity and polarity online, increases people’s ability to choose their next action, embracing the net for what it can offer – to share, to inform, to educate, to deliver income, to support, and much more. It’s apparent we would greatly benefit from this right now,” he concludes.

About MySociaLife

  • Schools can purchase the course and “login and learn” – using lesson plans, tips and tools and an assessment, with over 8 hours of training
  • Parents can access a 90-minute training to navigate their child’s online landscape
  • Teachers can access a 75-minute training to guide their students

Delivering an 8-module ‘Digital Citizenship Curriculum’, via webinar or Learning Management System, to Grade 4 to 11 learners in South African Schools, MySociaLife is the leading Digital Life Skills Program in the country. The Program has unmatched efficacy (data) with regards to student impact and behavioural change from the extensive modules which include: critical thinking, cyberbullying and empathy, sexuality online, a digital values system, privacy and security, mental health and resilience, and screen time addiction. End goal? Safer, smarter kids online – who will be able to explore and excel way beyond their peers as we slipstream into the highly competitive and demanding Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

The effect of social media on the subconscious mind

We’re seen as social media and online safety experts, and we also help kids to move into exploration and excellence online. And in order to do that, we need to get them to understand what the media does to them, what impact it has on them, and what this visual world imprints into their consciousness.

This is quite profound because when you think about the life that we have on smart devices and particularly social media, we are spending so much of our day on YouTube and Netflix, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and we are scrolling all the time… we are looking at and consuming media and content through our eyes. Once it gets processed in our brain, it then gets stored in our own operating system – in our own iOS. And of course, if there is something that is either really exciting or really, really disturbing, then that, of course, can get more deeply entrenched in that iOS. It can change the perspective of the way in which we see the world.

For example, If you keep scrolling through content that has some influence about the way in which people look – that could be body shape, or it could be how wealthy they are or what clothes they have, or what privilege they have. And when you repeatedly look at that content, it shapes your view of both yourself and that type of stereotyped image or group. And yet, we all know that what you see online is not necessarily true – however, it still has a psychological effect on us.

It all started by a visual representation, which we consumed, processed and stored. And of course, if the memory isn’t a strong one, then it just gets shelved, or archived and slowly fades away. But for kids, they are a little bit more vulnerable than that. They’re in a very interesting stage of their neuro-biological development. We need to understand their increasing life online. They’re reporting that they are using YouTube and Netflix and social media channels as their news services, as the inspiration, and if that content and stimulus doesn’t have the right influence, then it’s going to change the lens through which they look at life and other people.

Now, what can we do about that? Well, we need to talk to them about it.

Are they going to get offline because of this information – in fact, is that even the goal? That’s up to the principal and the teachers during school time or break time, and the parents while at home. But one guarantee is that they will be using devices for the rest of their lives and now is the time to entrench foundational critical thinking with regards to all types of content, influence, fraud, misinformation. This isn’t fear-mongering against social media, these are just the absolute basics which have been missed. And it starts with understanding what we’re doing as human beings when we’re consuming all of this visual content.

They do need to be able to stop, to turn a device over, and to take a break, to ask questions, to be media literate, to find out whether “is this fake news? I wonder…, I mean, maybe I’ll ask some friends… or maybe I’ll ask a parent, or I’ll ask an adult, is this true?” And if the content in which they’re seeing is not making them feel good… to stop. Just something as simple as that – just stop and ask a question. “Actually, I’m not sure if this is making me feel so good”.

These are things that happen invisibly. They happen automatically, to both adults and children. It’s simply because we don’t understand that we are consuming visual stimulus, processing it, and in some cases, storing it. And if we do that repeatedly, then that starts to change the way we view things around us, and the way we see the world. And that is something which is incredibly important and worth playing for.

Expert: Our kids are “doomscrolling”, and feeling the effects online

A global pandemic, lockdown, fluctuating COVID-19 cases, political corruption, and global instability that includes espionage by cell phone manufacturers and social media companies. The news is largely bad news.

“The trend of doomscrolling has never been higher than in 2020. The intersection of a health and financial crisis, the introspection of a lockdown, and increased screen time means that we have more access to local and international doom and gloom than ever before in history,” explains South Africa’s digital and social media expert, Dean McCoubrey from MySociaLife.

Can his claim be substantiated? If the pandemic had occurred a decade ago in 2010, the news surrounding the crisis would have been limited to just 2bn internet users. According to Statista, in 2020, there are now over 4.5bn users online with almost 4bn using social media and likely accessing news via the portable smart device in their bag or back pocket.

“When things go bad we can find out about it immediately due to social media feeds. They are spontaneous. Traditional news was never this quick. Moreover, the news that’s spreads online is not always factual,” he adds.

Despite some of the frightening and concerning things that are happening in the world, there are also many developments and reasons for positivity, especially being in the most advanced technology point in history. “Consider the development of the vaccine in which there are more than a few trials in advancing phases. If we saw a daily news report that opened on the latest development of the vaccine, would we see things slightly differently – with a little more hope?” he explains.

Negative news fuels fear and divisiveness as is now seen in politically unstable, or even apparently stable, countries like the United States.

“Consuming depressing or dramatic content affirms our belief that things are unsafe or dangerous. In one sense it makes us feel safe to confirm that the world is unsafe.”

McCoubrey questions if we didn’t consume as much negative media which include fake news, and are purposely driven to send more content of the same theme via its divisive algorithms, would we see people feeling less stress fear and anxiety?

“Would COVID-19 have been more manageable? (included space)Not less severe, but more manageable. Let me be clear that the news cycle has undoubtedly saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives, but there is definitely the fallout of an infodemic. In schools, the number one lesson that our students asked for in our digital life orientation program last month – out of the eight modules which we offer – was mental health, and the second most requested lesson was tools to help focus. With teens having similar access to adults via social media their brains are not necessarily equipped to process or manage this flood of information, even if they appear technologically confident and competent.”

“Due to app penetration, hundreds of millions of teens are now their own media publishers on apps like TikTok, Instagram and Reels. Fake news posing as memes can just perpetuate, as many teens lack the critical thinking to ask enough questions about what is true or false, safe or dangerous. It’s all about understanding media and it’s influence – known as media literacy.”

Doomscrolling is the fuel that feeds the new ‘attention economy’. It keeps us coming back for more, either the need to feel safe or the need to be thrilled and be part of the conversation. That has always been the lure of news. But right now there’s more bad news, more introspection, and more access all rolled into one.

“Parents need to be conscious of what they are consuming, how their news consumption rubs off on their anxiety and how that impacts their kids. Teens openly share that it’s too much, and the adults need to play a larger role in the management of doom,” he continues.

Mccoubrey cites three important biases to consider when consuming the news:

  1. Negativity bias:This is where we focus on negative information, events or emotions more than their positive counterparts. This originally would have been used to keep us alert and therefore safe. But the same perils do not exist that used to hundreds of years ago. We are wired for caution more than may be required.
  1. Confirmation bias:If we have been exposed to a piece of information, often we can seekq to confirm that ‘fact’ by seeking supporting information, stories or data, despite conflicting stories which may not prove it to be conclusive.
  1. Availability bias: If we have been exposed to certain information or events, these are more ‘front and centre’ in our minds for a period of time, and we can overestimate their importance. They may have relevance, in some instances, but they could also be a snapshot of a moment in the news – and are not representative of the bigger picture in a country or city, for example.

“Yes, things are tough right now and there is no arguing they can be scary. But if we keep that flow of negative news coming in we will focus on that, and it’s hard to start seeing the positive aspects in every day. Ironically, that’s one way out. Take a break from the media and social media. You’ll be amazed by what happens, and it’s what the MySociaLife Program teaches teens and pre-teens in South African schools: how to navigate this complicated online landscape to be become safer, smarter and more savvy. This may be just as important as any other topic in school these days, given where we are headed in this decade,” McCoubrey concludes.

A suicide goes viral on social media: Suicide Prevention Day

Suicide goes viral on social media

Thursday, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) around the world, organized by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), and co-sponsor World Health Organisation (WHO).  

This year, however, we find ourselves within a different context, trying to emerge from various levels of lockdown and re-establish society and community in stabilising healthy daily activities. In schools, students have either been unable to enjoy the regular routine of attending class or, those with access to devices and data, have found themselves experiencing an increase of several hours a day of online learning. With increased screen times comes increased exposure and influence. A 33-year-old American man committed suicide on social media, and while platforms tried to contain the virality in recent days by blocking access to the video, platform users had repurposed the video in other formats and published into multiple channels, including teen app sensations, TikTok and Instagram. Schools in South Africa have issued warnings of the video to parents over the last few days.


A simple Google search shows the frequency of social media virality around suicide including hashtags that allow users to share their darkest fears and emotional turmoil publicly, with other users commenting. The obsessive usage of these platforms means that teens and pre-teens can be exposed to graphic, violent, or explicit sexual imagery, which disturbs some individuals and causes a response that may vary from anxiety to anger, to sadness, to shame. The most important revelation, according to Dean McCoubrey, the Founder of MySociaLife, the South African online safety and social media program operating in schools, is that “as many as a third of students will not discuss what they have seen or what troubles them online with their parents for fear of punishment or the removal of their device, which gives them access to entertainment, socialising, and games. This is echoed by a 2017 Vodafone survey in 13 countries, meaning that this is not exclusive to South Africa.” 


Suicide shouldn’t be a secret – people understandably think about it, especially if it is in the news or social media, without necessarily having the intent to act upon it. Often there is curiosity which opens up an opportunity to discuss or share helplines if students aren’t ready to talk to their parents for any reason. Suicide is often the result of enduring a longstanding illness, such as depression, and that if provided with the opportunity to get help, many people are able to recover from depression, and no longer have suicidal thoughts or desires. 


MySociaLife teaches thousands of students a year about online safety and social media and assumes “a rare vantage point because we teach eight lessons around digital life skills, and this creates a platform for many students to tell us about the reality of their life online”. This interaction allows the training program to track the latest apps, hoaxes, trends, language, and seeks to bridge the generational and technological divide that has arisen from a generation which received devices or social media access in the same decade as their parents. “This divide has made it difficult for adults. How can they grasp digital identity, privacy, latest apps, mental health, digital footprint, bullying, unless they work inside these moving currents on a daily basis? Parents, teachers, counsellors, and mental health professionals are struggling to understand the landscape and therefore the context of what is happening in teenager’s lives, or what to look out for. To make matters worse, these exposures can be kept largely hidden,” he adds. 


McCoubrey advises parents not to be fooled by the apparent confidence or ‘tech-savvy’ of a teen or pre-teen, given their emotional maturity, and offers six tips:

  1. Parents need to stay abreast of the trends and hoaxes online and either self educate on Google, or ask their school for expert training from educators like MySociaLife
  2. While many teens don’t enjoy probing questions, check-in on what’s interesting online – the highs and lows, or what’s being talked about – and monitor their reactions. But be conscious of your own anxiety rising and how you appear in this conversation.
  3. Provide the safety that their online concerns can be talked about, without taking the device away as punishment if they reveal something that is shocking to you. This may not be their fault that they witnessed something online
  4. Look for changes in their behaviour around sleep, mood, anxiety, their friend group, or school work
  5. Seek professional help as soon as possible, via your health care provider or professional suicide helplines, listed below
  6. Request schools to educate their staff around the latest viral dangers – given the time spent at school – to share the support function and education of students

“MySociaLife now teaches the child psychiatry units in hospitals, and speaks at GP conferences, because this is such a complicated world to understand that even medical practitioners need advice and insight to grasp the nuances within this technological landscape.” “In this instance, curiosity can get the better of kids. And all it takes is to scroll past these graphic visuals and watch something. And then it’s very difficult to get this out of the mind, which can lead to secrecy, shame, embarrassment, and fear. Our kids need non-judgmental support. We do need to accept that most parents have given these devices and data or WiFi connection and schools are using these for learning. Adults had not fully grasped the window into a vast world (of all ages) that it would provide, resulting in positive and negative outcomes.”  At MySociaLife, we have a simple motto, says McCoubrey, “Safer kids can be smarter, and then excel online. But they will need facilitators that are ‘on the pulse’, objective and highly experienced.”

The effects of social isolation during Lockdown on kids

Humans are social creatures. We take our cues from each other, and the environment around us. As we receive this information or stimulus, we process it and its contents are vital during childhood development. So what are the effects of social isolation during Lockdown on kids? What happens when (physical) social contact is dramatically reduced, as is the case during the COVID-19 pandemic?

(Some) adults will have developed a framework to manage and can source the tools to support themselves (exercise perhaps, or escapism, or communicating with others.) Children are not so fortunate. They depend on the connection, guidance, and support of those around them, which is why children that receive less support can suffer from more social, emotional, or educational challenges if they live in isolation. Loneliness has links to stress and poor mental health. Why? If the body’s stress response feels consistently under threat, it can be mentally and physically tiring, and perpetuate habitual loops – anxiety, being one example.

Lockdown has moved more of our ‘connection’ online. While that’s a ‘plus’ in many respects, there is something inside human physical contact that many of us overlook. There are dimensions of connection that the supercomputer of the brain reads – facial muscles, postures, gestures, and tonality to hear the words being spoken, or feel the story being shared, even if that’s conveyed with a look.

Dean McCoubrey, Founder of MySociaLife which educates parents, students, and teachers about eight different aspects (lessons) of the complex aspects of lifeonline explains, “MySociaLife has consistently seen that time is a key factor in supporting children. Both p arents and students share this with us. Many adults (custodians) may need to slow down a little to hear them, to truly listen and pick up the cues, to ensure they feel supported and therefore reduce that stress. At the same time, that creates the space to educate them about your values or resilience, for example. They see you, hear you, and mirror you, based upon that important stream of content, as opposed to seeking it from friends or social media. Time is powerful.”

Friends, aunts, and uncles, or grandparents offer layers of support and influence, and these (hopefully positive) influences and networks help our kids grow, acting as the seeds which allow them to flourish. Make the connections as best you can with the time you have. It will pay dividends.

More wellbeing tips here on Parent24.

How do SA kids see #Coronavirus in a TikTok and Instagram-based world?

And how can parents guide and support them? SA’s Digital Life Skills experts offer 7 key tips for parents.

As Covid-19 has exploded from a distant reality in South Africa to a global pandemic, with increasing local cases of the virus, we can count ourselves lucky to have almost instant access to information, education and updates on the status of the disease. However, the sheer volume of information – fact-based or hysteria-driven – can be overwhelming, even for adults. What does this information and the adults’ concern look like to our kids, and how are they consuming information on apps like TikTok, Instagram, or Snapchat?

Right now adults and kids need to think Critically.

SA’s leading digital life skills expert, Dean McCoubrey, whose company MySociaLife teaches an 8-module social media program in SA schools, explains that the skill of critical thinking – the ability to question what may be true or false, safe or dangerous, right or wrong – is a key life skill in an explosive world of self-publishing, fake news, and cyberbullying. Consider how much time some teens (and even pre-teens spend online), what is interpreted and then discussed at school, irrespective of whether it may be fake news. Early cases of the virus have seen online hate and memes on some apps towards those with the virus.

Children and teens need to be guided about how to choose what content they consume about the disease, in addition to ongoing engagement with the adults they trust. Schools and parents often overlook the source of their children’s news. “We’ve got more access to information about Covid-19 thanks to the internet and social media than we’ve had for any other global epidemics such as SARSMERS and the various Ebola outbreaks, which is helping to manage and treat it,” MCoubrey says.

“The challenge with social media is that it can magnify our herd mentality. And anyone and everyone can publish information which may not be true or negative in a bid to get traction. In the middle of this are our children, who have yet to develop the ability to discern fake news from important facts, and can become overwhelmed or anxious if they are exposed to the wrong information.”

There are a number of steps that parents can take to reassure children, discuss the implications of the disease, and equip them to self-manage their access to information. These include:

  1. Equip yourself with information from trusted resources, like UNICEF, the World Health Organisation, the US Centre for Disease Control, and the South African Department of Health. Explain that many other sources are less reliable, and check the date of articles and authors – are they credible, or do the headline and image look like fear-mongering ‘clickbait’?
  2. Keep calm where possible, because children pick up on their parents’ emotions and are more likely to panic if their parents are doing so.
  3. Ask your children what they’ve heard about Covid-19, and answer as many of their questions in age-appropriate ways as you can. If you don’t know the answer to a question, use the opportunity to research it on trusted resources together.
  4. Co-create a plan of action – it helps them feel like they’re in control. Teach them the steps that they can take to protect themselves and others, including washing hands frequently with soap or an alcohol-based hand-rub, covering their mouth when sneezing or coughing, or doing so into the elbow, avoiding sick people, and alerting adults if they feel sick so that medical attention can be sought.
  5. Share the facts to help them gain an understanding of the role that they play in society. For example, research shows that very few children get really sick or die from the virus, which may make children feel invincible. However, remind them that they can carry the virus and share it people who are vulnerable, like their grandparents.
  6. Talk about the social implications of the disease, and remind children that the disease doesn’t care what the people it infects look like – and that there’s no basis for stigmatizing any population group because of the disease. Remind them that everybody looking out for one another and working together is how diseases like Covid-19 are overcome.
  7. Keep the conversation going – Covid-19 is here for a while, so consistency is essential. Challenges provide opportunities to educate so do some online research on resources that you’ve identified as trustworthy, and discuss developments regularly and openly.

“Because we teach eight hours of life online to thousands of kids every year, we are closer to understanding how teens and tweens consume content online, interpret what they see and read, and how it impacts them (both positively and negatively).”

MySociaLife’s ‘Digital Life Skills Program’ equips children with the skills they need to be responsible digital citizens, able to discern fake news from real, explains the effect of cyberbullying, shows how to protect privacy and reputation online, and how our mind and body reacts to what we see which can cause mental health issues,” says McCoubrey.

“As devices become increasingly ubiquitous, the issue is becoming less about policing children’s screen time or access to digital content, because they’ll find a way to get online – it’s more about equipping them to think critically about the information they read so that they can participate actively in their media consumption, rather than accepting everything that they read as the truth,” he adds. “Once they have that distance to question what happens online, we can teach them about other key topics like respect, empathy, resilience and responsible publishing. In one sense they need a digital values system to call on, but you can’t find that in a curriculum here in our country. That’s why we developed our own working with a global entity, resulting in eight 60-minute sessions to unpack it carefully. Schools need help. And so do many parents – it’s a complex world out there.”