Kids use multiple devices to access the internet all through their day and much of their online activity is spent on social media sites. A lot of this virtual socializing is innocuous, but problems can arise. Like the real world, there are risks online that parents need to be aware of and protect their kids from. Being smart about childhood social media use and teaching your kids to be internet savvy can go a long way in keeping them safe.
What can parents do to ensure their children are safe short of banning all social media use – something that’s likely impossible to do in this day and age?
Set Boundaries that Work for Your Family
Every family and every situation is different. What works for a family with young children won’t be what’s best for families with tween or teens. And even if children are about the same age, the development of the child and the lifestyle of the family in general needs to be taken into consideration.
Experts say there is no “right” amount of screen time for every child. Many even believe that some social media interaction is healthy, as long as kids are getting enough sleep and physical activity.
Explains Jenny Radesky, MD, FAAP, lead author of the policy statement, Media and Young Minds, “Families should proactively think about their children’s media use and talk with children about it, because too much media use can mean that children don’t have enough time during the day to play, study, talk, or sleep.”
The key is helping your child enjoy social media in a healthy manner that boosts self-esteem instead of damaging it.
It’s all too easy for kids to slip into an unhealthy routine, though. According to Common Sense Media, about half of all teens claim to be addicted to their cell phones. Two-thirds of parents believe their teenage children spend too much time on their phones. Interaction on social media and texting has replaced traditional methods of spending time together for kids, but it’s important to find balance. Just as you wouldn’t allow your child to spend every night at a friend’s house, you shouldn’t allow him or her constant access to social media.
How can you tell when time spent on social media has gone from use to abuse?
Signs of too much social media engagement include:
– Withdraw from in-person face-to-face social experiences
– Ongoing anxiety, stress, or feelings of overwhelm
– Problems with schoolwork or a decline in grades
– Avoidance of responsibilities including chores or homework
– Unable or uncomfortable interacting with people in person
– Phubbing, which occurs when kids ignore people in the room with them to look at their phones
– Social media and device use are creating conflict in close relationships
Social Media’s Impact on the Young Brain
The overuse of social media isn’t just about neglecting chores or irritating parents. There is evidence that social media use affects the brain.
According to a study from the National Institute of Health, the neural structures that respond to primary and secondary rewards are activated when a person receives or gives “likes” and other positive feedback on social media.
The study mapped the neural response that occurred when teens provided likes to others on social media. Researchers found that providing likes activated the striatum and ventral tegmental regions of the brain. They also found the brain regions involved in salience processing and executive function were affected by social media interaction.
Time spent on social media likely isn’t “rotting” your child’s brain, as some parents might tell their kids, but it is most definitely affecting their brains.
What Parents Can Do to Keep Children Healthy and Safe on Social Media Sites
There are several things parents can do to reduce the risks associated with social media use.
– The internet should be seen as a wide-open space, just like the real world, filled with potential risks for children. If you wouldn’t let your child walk around alone in a public space for a few hours, you shouldn’t be doing so online either.
– Know that as much as bullying is a problem in the real world, online bullying tends to be even more vicious. Speak to your child about how to handle bullying and why it’s unkind to bully others.
– Look for signs of “Facebook Depression.” This is a condition that arises from the use of any social media platform (especially Facebook and Instagram) and occurs when a person grows emotionally fatigued and then discontent with his or her situation after viewing online positive descriptions of other’s lives. It affects children and adults. Kids should be told that much of what they see on social media is only the highlights of a person’s life and that things likely aren’t as consistently rosy behind the scenes.
– Do everything you can to establish trust with your child and try not to judge when he or she confides in you.
– Know that as much as you think you know, that might not be all there is. Many kids have alternate social media identities their parents don’t know about. You shouldn’t assume you see everything your child does online just because you are Facebook friends.
Finally, you shouldn’t feel pressured by other families into doing something you feel isn’t right for your child. Every kid is different and requires different levels of supervision and support. You know your child better than anyone and need to set your child’s boundaries. Understanding the risks of social media and doing what you can to mitigate those risks can go a long way in keeping your child safe.