Assessing Social Media and Your Child

casual-cellphones-children-2124916Those in my generation and older often long for life before cell phones, ipads, and video games.  If I could have it my way, I’d love for my children to do without these items and to enjoy being outside all day, making up games, climbing trees, and spending time with family and friends in the neighborhood.  In an ideal world, I’d love for us to spend an hour together in the evening, much as I did as a youngster, watching a lighthearted sitcom as a family after dinner, and then reading books until bedtime.

In a world where screen time has become the new pastime, gone are those days for most of us.  I swore off cell phones until my oldest reached middle school, at which point a friend compelled me to purchase one to ensure my child was safe and could reach me from school (of course, school safety isn’t something we worried as much about in my generation growing up).  Soon thereafter, my son was asking about downloading sports games, texting a friend from his baseball team, and asking if he could get the numbers for his teammates to talk with them.

It is new and uncharted territory for most parents in my age group.  We didn’t grow up like this.  Technology is the wave of the future generations, guaranteed to only become more complex for parents as time goes on.   With it, will come questions about family life, ethics, morality, communication with others in its’ rapidly changing forms, and the question of “how much is too much?”

So, as a doctor, how do I advise parents to deal with phones and social media concerns?  Here are some general tips to guide you through your thought process as you decide what is right for your children.

1.You can choose to be conservative.  It is easier to have phone limits up front and then gradually allow more freedom, than to allow more freedom on the front end and later decide to back track. 

If you want your child to be able to communicate with you or loved ones when needed, especially for safety reasons, but you want to be conservative and limit his ability to talk, text, or use social media, you can purchase a phone and set limitations up accordingly.  You can allow your child to only have contacts that you approve of.  There are wonderful apps that allow you to monitor incoming and outgoing texts on your child’s phone, and that block inappropriate internet content.  For children 12 years of age and younger, I strongly advise this type of supervision.

2. If you choose to allow your child or teen to have a phone and to have social media, have some important family discussion beforehand to prepare him as best you can.

Keep up this discussion periodically so that you can prompt your child to think critically.  Discuss how social media makes people feel.  Pull up a sample Facebook or Instagram feed of a person that is your child’s age.  Talk about your own feelings and his feelings when looking at it.  Ask your child questions that spur discussion.  Are the images you see or the posts that you read realistic?  Do they portray what someone’s life is really like? What motives do people have when they post on social media? Does it matter how many “Likes” someone has on a post? 

As a general rule of thumb, I don’t advise social media for children under the age of 16.  Children generally aren’t developmentally prepared to handle negative posts, cyber bullying, and the ways that others’ posts can influence self-image and self-concept.

3. Discuss social media’s effects on mood and anxiety. 

Research shows that rates of depressed mood and anxiety are much higher after looking at social media.  Discuss what your child thinks about this.  Let him know that if there are posts that make him uncomfortable, you would like him to be comfortable talking about it with you.

4. Discuss the effects of social media on relationships. 

How does it affect honest, real, and face to face communication?  How does it affect people’s need to talk and engage with one another? Encourage your child to talk to friends in person about more serious things versus talking via text or social media postings.  Encourage him to think about how his post will affect others before posting it.   

5. Discuss the dangers of social media. 

Discuss the importance of safeguarding personal information.  Talk about the dangers of your child’s feelings/thought life being on display publicly.  Discuss ways to be safe and wise online. 

6. Discuss constructive use of appropriate apps/sites and practice close monitoring if your are allowing your child to use them. 

Teach accountability early.   Beware of sites that limit parental monitoring and sites that delete messages quickly.    

7. Have frequent discussions about social media use by your child’s social circles.

Talk about what friends are doing and saying on social media.  Your child is likely to have thoughts and feelings about what his friends are posting.  

8. Limit time on social media and phone time in general if you choose to allow it and have a preset “turn in” time. 

Have a set time when your child hands his phone to you for the evening.   For many families, children give their phones to their parents before dinner, and parents keep them until the next day.   This allows for undistracted family time, homework, and wind down time before bed.  Screen time too close to bedtime affects quality of sleep, so having family rules like this also allows sleep to not be impacted by phone use. 

9. Model appropriate use of social media. 

If your child sees you looking at Facebook when he is wanting to spend time with you or could use your attention, he will follow your example.  Be mindful to limit time on your phone or computer engaging in social media.  Your time is precious- invest it accordingly.  Your children need you to be physically and emotionally present!  

10. Number 10? Time travel back to the 80’s when screens weren’t a big thing! Life was easier to manage!