Wake Up, Parents

Social Media’s Dangerous Hold on Muslim Youth

By Sundus Abrar

Sept/Oct 2023

Dove’s viral commercial,“Cost of Beauty” portrays the swift and detrimental impact of social media use on a young girl. Based on a true story, Mary receives a smartphone on her 13th birthday and after intensive interaction with social media develops a debilitating eating disorder. The message of the commercial — advocating for kids’ online safety – resonated with many concerned adults. Guarding impressionable young minds from the compelling nature of social media is a clear concern. In one scene, Mary’s mother attempts to physically grab the smartphone to disengage her from constantly scrolling. Undeterred, Mary pulls away, and continues using her phone. 

Mary is unfortunately the norm today.

Tween and teens everywhere are resisting the attempts of parents and educators to limit social media use. Amal Naeem, a seventh grade teacher in Mississauga, Canada, regularly faces this issue with her students. The Islamic School school she teaches at doesn’t allow smartphones and has a firewall on the school network to prevent access to non-educational content. Despite this policy, limiting social media among students remains challenging. 

Kids Get Smart with Smartphones

“They find ways to log onto Instagram on their Chromebooks, and with one click they can quickly close the tab” said Naeem. “Some children bring smartphones to school because their parents want to ensure that they can maintain contact. These students use their phones during recess to get onto social media sites.”

Aside from being a distraction with school work, the concern around social media use in a school environment is the problematic content with which the children are engaging. In 2019, Naeem was teaching 5th grade when TikTok was gaining traction amongst young users. She recounts an instance where she saw a group of her students performing a TikTok trend with provocative undertones at school. 

“I told them this is inappropriate,” said Naeem. The 10-year olds were just surprised that their teacher was aware of the trend. A trend on social media can be a short dance, skit, lip syncing video that users re-enact and share. Discussions and interactions around these trends provide opportunities for tweens and teens to socialize with each other and form peer groups. These can be positive outcomes from the children’s perspective, but children are not mindful of long term consequences. The sub-culture perpetuated by social media use is multilayered. Naeem’s students were only mimicking the dance moves of a trend which without the context of the problematic trend may not be concerning. However, the overall inappropriate messaging has potential to influence these young users to mirror more aspects of the behaviors they are observing. “Parents assume that their children are innocent. They underestimate how much children can understand,” she added. 

Nikhat Raffiq, a Naperville, Ill. therapist, recognizes the draw of social media for her teen and young adult clients. “It can be a safe space, especially for introverted individuals, to find like minded people,” she said. The pseudo anonymity on social media is reassuring for those who may feel shy in social settings. Online they have space to form their responses and process their emotions. 

Raffiq does see clients struggling in limiting their social media consumption. “They feel guilty for spending so much time online,” she said. This lack of balance is aggravating, and she sees her clients struggling with feelings of guilt and anxiety. She encourages starting with imposing boundaries on social media use, and encourages families to communicate about what they see online. “Young people often attach too much meaning to what they see online,” she said. Communication among family members is important as it helps break down unattainable expectations and standards set by social media. 

Social Media and Islam

Social media is commonly being accessed on smartphones and tablets. The privacy afforded by these personal devices requires that communication around social media requires an intentional effort. Shahnila Ahmed, a Southern California-based Muslim parent coach, encourages this consistently on her Instagram account, @BraveMuslimParents. At the ages of 12 through 18 it is natural for children to seek autonomy and rebel against parental standards. “This makes sense as they are at the stage when they want to connect to their fitra, but they need space to do that, “says Ahmed. Social media can be hindering spiritual development in children if they turn to it to seek acceptance and validation. “Most things about social media do not align with our Islamic values. Majority of content perpetuates showing off what you are wearing, eating, or where you are vacationing. It waters down our values of modesty and humility,” says Naeem.  

Ahmad and Naeem both advise delaying and then limiting access to social media platforms for children. As a parent to a tween and teenager herself, Ahmad does recognize that social media is not entirely avoidable. She advises parents to not give children smartphones, and instead allow them to use parent devices with supervision. She also encourages parents to be educated about the platforms their children are accessing. 

“Just like you teach your child to look both ways before crossing the road during heavy traffic, we need to be teaching our kids how to behave online on social media,” says Ahmad. Some schools cover online safety guidelines, but in Naeem’s experience these exercises are not resonating with the students. “Children are not capable of understanding the long term impact of  decisions that they make,” says Naeem. One such instance is when her husband — vice principal at a different Islamic School — encountered students sharing passwords with each other. “It’s so easy to manipulate children at this age as they are still developing their personality, and they don’t realize how their actions now can come back to haunt them.”

Teaching Kids about Legal Health

Arshia Ali-Khan, CEO of Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA), is especially concerned about the vulnerable position of Muslim youth and their online activities. MLFA, a nonprofit organization that advocates against unjust legalized prosecution of Muslims in the U.S. Following the 9/11 attacks and the passing of the Patriot Act, Muslims communities have been subject to surveillance. “The government needs to find terrorists to justify the budget of billions of dollars that sit in the national security budget targeted to find terrorists,” says Ali-Khan. Muslim women, youth and converts have become targets of FBI’s predatory and grooming behaviors. Even social media interactions can be monitored. In various cases, vulnerable Muslims have been misguided and entrapped by FBI informants.

These interactions between targets and FBI informants can and do occur online on social media platforms. Georgina Giampetro, converted to Islam and posted alarming statements online in response to the war in Syria. Giampetro later went on to retract her misguided support for terror groups in Syria. Yet she continued to be observed by multiple FBI informants who interacted and entrapped her in a terrorism case through in-person and online interactions. Giampetro was initially facing a sentence of 10 years. She is now serving a significantly reduced sentence of five and half years. Ali-Khan is urging the Muslim community to recognize that its members are vulnerable and can be unjustly targeted for their interactions online. “The constitution protects us in our freedom of speech, but that is not the same liberty that Muslims have. Muslims are being targeted and entrapped into terrorism cases, “says Ali-Khan. Muslims also face enhanced sentencing. MLFA advocates for fairer trials and challenges the unfair prosecution of Muslims.  

“We need to be teaching children about their legal health,” Ali-Khan says. The unjust surveillance and prosecution of Muslims is a current and ongoing issue, but Muslim communities have stopped addressing it with the persistence it demands.

Sundus Abrar is a parent of two, residing in Chicago. 

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