Social media is nearly impossible for parents to avoid. Alarming stories of cyberbullying, suicides following social media abuse, and catfishing may tempt parents to forbid their children from using it.
Yet social media also offers some benefits. It can connect kids to peers and provide an outlet for exploring new identities. It may even offer support for people with depression.
New Technology, New Challenges: Social Media and Kids
Kids spend more time in front of screens than ever before. A 2007 study of children ages 0-6 found that 75% of kids watch TV each day, for an average of an hour and 20 minutes. Twenty-seven percent of 5- to 6-year olds used a computer each day. Research published in 2018 found that 90% of kids ages 13-17 have used social media. Seventy-five percent have at least one active profile. Fifty-one percent say they use social media daily.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time for toddlers and preschoolers. They suggest parents avoid digital media altogether for children under 18 months. Also recommended is that each family develop a “family media plan.” This can help outline how the family plans to use digital media.
The AAP emphasizes it’s important for children to have plenty of time for physical play and creative learning. They also remind us that screen time can be beneficial when correctly used.
How Social Media Can Affect Kids’ Mental Health
Social media use presents a number of dangers, including:
- Internet addiction
- Cyberbullying, which affects nearly 1 in 4 children
- Sexual harassment
- Low self-esteem. This may occur when children are teased or bullied. It may also crop up when they negatively compare themselves to people they follow online.
- Privacy concerns
- Avoiding in-person social interaction
- Spending less time playing, exercising, or reading offline
- Pressure to conform
Not all social media use is harmful. Social media can also:
- Help children connect with friends and relatives
- Offer support to children with alternative identities
- Provide support for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety
- Help children feel less isolated
- Encourage self-expression
- Support learning about other people and cultures
Tips for Managing Child Social Media Use
Therapists often help families better understand and safely use social media. Some expert strategies that may help include:
Lead by example.
Barrie Sueskind, MA, MFT acknowledges that social media allows children to stay connected with peers. But social media may amplify the “Fear of Missing Out,” or FOMO, for kids and teens. “There is always someone whose life looks better on social media. It’s easy to feel inferior by comparison,” says Sueskind. “Remind your kids that social media is about image, which is superficial in comparison to real world interactions and meaningful relationships. Make sure you set aside tech-free time to connect as a family. Establish a rule that meals are device-free and follow it yourself. If you can’t tear yourself away from your phone, you can’t expect your kids to willingly part with theirs. Teach your kids by example the value of being present with the people around them.”
Set limits and educate.
Katelyn Alcamo, LCMFT suggests that delaying access to having a smartphone until teen years is a good start. Children who are younger may not be developed or mature enough to handle the responsibility that comes with owning a smartphone. If parents are concerned about safety, Alcamo suggests providing a basic phone that can be used for making calls.
- Educate: “No matter how hard parents try, kids will find a way to access things like Instagram and Snapchat,” Alcamo says. “One of the most important things is to teach your kids healthy technology habits. Teach them about the importance of privacy settings and not sharing too much personal information online. Teach them what to do if they are being cyberbullied or see a peer being cyberbullied. Let them know it is important and safe that they come to you when they don’t know how to handle a situation online or come across something they were not supposed to.”
- Set limits: Alcamo acknowledges it can be easy for kids and adults to become engrossed with tech devices for long hours. She suggests addressing this by setting limits on how long kids can be on a device. “I also recommend a technology curfew for kids. This means all devices should be stored with the parents after a certain time of night. This is the time when most kids get into trouble with their social media use, as it is often unsupervised. There is no one available to support them if something negative happens,” she says.
Being curious, opening up respectful conversations, and using digital media as a platform to better understand your child is every bit as important as setting limits and being vigilant.
Alcamo recommends keeping tech devices in communal areas. This way, parents can observe what is going on and check in with their children. But if you notice something concerning, your response is important. “Don’t approach them punitively, but explore their feelings about what happened. Help them determine better choices for the future,” says Alcamo.
Lois V. Nightingale, PhD points out an opportunity parents often miss when setting rules for computer activities, like social media and video games: asking their kids what they like about their favorite online activity. Do they enjoy inspiring others who may have a similar challenge or interest? Or are they just trying to get as many followers as possible?
“Being curious, opening up respectful conversations, and using digital media as a platform to better understand your child is every bit as important as setting limits and being vigilant,” says Nightingale.
Spend time with your kids.
Monica Lake, PsyD, NCSP says strong relationships help children and parents communicate about social media. They allow parents to better understand their children’s use of social media.
“Parents must have a strong bond with their children. Doing fun things together like playing board games, taking silly pictures, remodeling a room, and volunteering can enhance this bond. It also increases the time parents and children spend together. These activities give parents more insight on their child’s social media beliefs and behaviors. Parents can also model good decision-making during these activities by guiding children through their thought process. For example, a simple statement such as, ‘Nice move. What made you think of that?’ can help children think about their own behaviors and promote good decision-making in the future,” Lake suggests.
Follow your children on social media.
Angela Avery, MA, LLPC, NCC says, “The advice I most often give parents about social media is to follow their children on each social media platform so they can stay informed on what their children are posting and liking. What children and teens ‘like’ can and should be discussed.”
“For example, ‘I see that you liked Kylie Kardashian’s post. What do you like about it?’ This allows for conversation on influential topics that shape culture today, which you may or may not want your children to value. By discussing topics related to the posts, you plant seeds of broader thinking on a topic. ‘I saw that your friend posted a picture wearing a bikini. I wonder what her motivation was.’ In addition, parents have the duty to monitor social media accounts for safety and security purposes. It’s always appropriate to discuss what and what not to post.”
Understand Why Children Use Social Media and What It Offers
Social media is merely a platform. It is neither good nor bad. Talking openly with children about why they use social media and what they feel they gain from its use can foster good communication. Parents should also learn as much as they can about social media—both benefits and risks. This knowledge empowers parents to understand new technology. It can help them make informed decisions about how their children can most effectively use it.
If you are concerned about how your children use social media, seek help from a therapist or other expert. Family therapy can support parents and children to set mutually agreed-to boundaries. Therapists often help families work through social media disputes and find healthy ways to engage with this emerging media.
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