If you ever doubted whether children are influenced by what they see online, this headline in The Times recently speaks volumes: “Children are harming skin by using creams pushed on social media”. The article went on to explain that girls are becoming obsessed with skincare from a young age and using unsuitable and often damaging products they see influencers pushing online.
For me, the report came as no shock. In the run up to Chanukah my youngest daughter was campaigning for Drunk Elephant products, which are in fact more suitable for someone at least quadruple her age. The moisturiser she wanted helps the skin “retain its youthful appearance”. She’s ten. The appeal, she explained, wasn’t actually about the potion itself, but the bottle, with its clean aesthetic and signature pastel pump.
But this is what she’s seeing online — and that’s without having a phone or any social media accounts of her own. As parents it’s nigh on impossible to monitor everything our children see on YouTube. And even if I had spotted my daughter watching some teenager washing and moisturising her face, I don’t think my first reaction would have been to get her to do an emergency pause and check what ingredients are in said product. There’s so much more that’s concerning on social media than inappropriate beauty products, which I guess is the real reason that headline has stuck with me. What else are children absorbing online about beauty, about body image, about relationships and also, most worrying, about us. About Jews. And about Israel. If my daughter can be persuaded that she wants an anti-ageing moisturiser, aged ten, what other messages are seeping into young minds as they are scrolling.
The parallel social media universe is certainly a powerful one, but it’s also intensely hostile. On Instagram and Tik Tok, misconceptions and lies about Israel are presented as facts: Israel is a colonial state; Israel has committed genocide. And as we know, bite-sized social media posts are often sapped of all nuances, context and complexity. And what Israel is accused of, however misguided, Jews everywhere are held culpable for. So it’s us who are bloodthirsty and us who want to oppress — you, me, our kids.
This has nothing to do with your political stance or viewpoint. The kibbutznikim and hippie kids at the music festival, typified by their peacenik stance and many of them activists for an independent Palestine, have had little sympathy on social media outside the Jewish world. On the streets their posters have been ripped down, their trauma belittled. When reduced to clicks on social media, few adults, let alone kids, have been able to express any nuance. If their tribe is posting Palestinian flags most cannot bring themselves to express sympathy for these good innocent people who have been brutalised in the most unthinkable ways.
But it’s not only the kids up and down the UK who are getting lessons in Middle Eastern history via a twisted narrative on TikTok. I worry about our Jewish kids being influenced too. Or if not influenced, then silenced. In a world where the bottle is more important the formula, we have to ensure our own kids feel proud to put their Jewishness and Zionism out there. They need to know that this doesn’t mean they have to agree with every action of the Israeli government in the last 75 years. Just as they don’t have to agree with every action taken by successive Labour and Conservative governments to feel proudly British. But what they do have to know is this unquestionable truth: Zionism is not about oppression but about freedom. We Jews have been persecuted in practically every land we’ve ever considered home, my own grandparents from Poland and Persia examples of people from myriad other places across the globe and throughout history. And our children also must know that Zionism doesn’t clash with the concept of a free Palestine. It only clashes with the concept of a free Palestine that simultaneously calls for Israel’s own destruction. We can’t allow those who want to see Israel’s demise redefine our Zionism in negative terms. So if we don’t want them to get their history lessons on TikTok then we need ensure they are getting them elsewhere. Organisations like LSJS (lsjs.ac.uk) and I-gnite (I-gnite.org)are doing a brilliant job right now of offering educational sessions (ranging from real-life courses to online talks) to help bolster our kids’ understanding of the history and politics in the region. Equipped with knowledge, they will be more confident and effective ambassadors for our community. Youth Movements too have never been more important.
But if ever there was a pernicious warning on this point, it came last week at a Holocaust Educational Trust reception at the House of Commons when 94-year-old survivor Manfred Goldberg took the stage. He shared some of his own experience, but also warned of the dangers of social media. He spoke of antisemitism “rearing its ugly head” primarily by “brainwashed young people indoctrinated by social websites”. The speed at which misinformation, conspiracies, antisemitic language and hostile agendas are shared and accepted without question is deeply troubling and has the potential to threaten the fabric of our democracy, he said, as he called upon MPs, of which there were many high-profile ones present, to address online hate. He’s seen pure evil in his lifetime but what he now sees online scares him.
I agree wholeheartedly with Manfred. Governments should be holding these social media giants to account. And hopefully the new Online Safety Act has created an even better framework for them to do so. But what can we be doing —and our children be doing? It’s not easy to cut through the negative noise. Our efforts can seem overwhelmed, pointless even – our numbers just don’t compare. And of course the backlash can be hard and hurtful. Our instinct is to protect our children from the hate online, not to throw them headlong into it. But at the same time, I want my children to know that they must also stand up for themselves, for Jews and also for Zionism — our version of Zionism, not our detractors’. If we become bystanders as libels against ourselves rip through social media platforms then, to paraphrase Rabbi Hillel from over 2,000 years ago, who else can we expect to be for us?
Also on my agenda is to point my kids in the direction of influencers who spread positivity about the Jewish community and about Israel, both to inspire them and to help spread that positivity. One great example is Dov Foreman, who posts about Holocaust education along with uplifting clips with his great grandmother, survivor and 100-year-old TikToker @LilyEbert. @ElizabethSavetsky is an activist mum on an Instagram mission. @HumansofJudaism is a constant source of heart-warming stories about Jewish people, often with little nuggets of history attached. Comedian @zachmargs manages to brilliantly combine parodies with advocacy on Instagram. Unlike those beauty influencers pushing Drunk Elephant products to teens, their content is worthwhile, both in in terms of the way it’s packaged and the real meaning inside.