The Parent’s Guide to Social Media Algorithms

By Andrea Nelson
October 17, 2023
Woman smiling at phone while sitting on couch

Just by existing as a person in 2023, you’ve probably heard of social media algorithms. But what are algorithms? How do social media algorithms work? And why should parents care? 

At BrightCanary, we’re all about giving parents the tools and information they need to take a proactive role in their children’s digital life. So, we’ve created this guide to help you understand what social media algorithms are, how they impact your child, and what you can do about it. 

What is a social media algorithm? 

Social media algorithms are complex sets of rules and calculations used by platforms to prioritize the content that users see in their feeds. Each social network uses different algorithms. The algorithm on TikTok is different from the one on YouTube. 

In short, algorithms dictate what you see when you use social media and in what order. 

Why do social media sites use algorithms?

Back in the Wild Wild West days of social media, you would see all of the posts from everyone you were friends with or followed, presented in chronological order. 

But as more users flocked to social media and the amount of content ballooned, platforms started introducing algorithms to filter through the piles of content and deliver relevant and interesting content to keep their users engaged. The goal is to get users hooked and keep them coming back for more.  

Algorithms are also hugely beneficial for generating advertising revenue for platforms because they help target sponsored content. 

How do algorithms work? 

Each platform uses its own mix of factors, but here are some examples of what influences social media algorithms:

Friends/who you follow 

Most social media sites heavily prioritize showing users content from people they’re connected with on the platform. 

TikTok is unique because it emphasizes showing users new content based on their interests, which means you typically won’t see posts from people you follow on your TikTok feed. 

Your activity on the site

With the exception of TikTok, if you interact frequently with a particular user, you’re more likely to see their content in your feed. 

The algorithms on TikTok, Instagram Reels, and Instagram Explore prioritize showing you new content based on the type of posts and videos you engage with. For example, the more cute cat videos you watch, the more cute cat videos you’ll be shown. 

YouTube looks at the creators you interact with, your watch history, and the type of content you view to determine suggested videos. 

The popularity of a post or video 

The more likes, shares, and comments a post gets, the more likely it is to be shown to other users. This momentum is the snowball effect that causes posts to go viral. 

Why should parents care about algorithms? 

There are ways social media algorithms can benefit your child, such as creating a personalized experience and helping them discover new things related to their interests. But the drawbacks are also notable — and potentially concerning. 

Since social media algorithms show users more of what they seem to like, your child's feed might quickly become overwhelmed with negative content. Clicking a post out of curiosity or naivety, such as one promoting a conspiracy theory, can inadvertently expose your child to more such content. What may begin as innocent exploration could gradually influence their beliefs.

Experts frequently cite “thinspo” (short for “thinspiration”), a social media topic that aims to promote unhealthy body goals and disordered eating habits, as another algorithmic concern.

Even though most platforms ban content encouraging eating disorders, users often bypass filters using creative hashtags and abbreviations. If your child clicks on a thinspo post, they may continue to be served content that promotes eating disorders

Social media algorithm tips for parents

Although social media algorithms are something to monitor, the good news is that parents can help minimize the negative impacts on their child. 

Here are some tips:

Keep watch

It’s a good idea to monitor what the algorithm is showing your child so you can spot any concerning trends. Regularly sit down with them to look at their feed together. 

You can also use a parental monitoring service to alert you if your child consumes alarming content. BrightCanary is an app that continuously monitors your child’s social media activity and flags any concerning content, such as photos that promote self-harm or violent videos — so you can step in and talk about it.

Stay in the know

Keep up on concerning social media trends, such as popular conspiracy theories and internet challenges, so you can spot warning signs in your child’s feed. 

Communication is key

Talk to your child about who they follow and how those accounts make them feel. Encourage them to think critically about the content they consume and to disengage if something makes them feel bad. 

In short

Algorithms influence what content your child sees when they use social media. Parents need to be aware of the potentially harmful impacts this can have on their child and take an active role in combating the negative effects. 

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