With the ever-increasing social media use among teens and tweens resulting from COVID-19, it’s important for parents and families to pay attention to how their kids are connecting on these platforms, what their influences and interactions are, and how best to navigate family dynamics around their use. Good social media management can help optimize the social and emotional development opportunities for adolescents while avoiding pitfalls like anxiety, depression, narcissism, and addiction. In order to support parents and families so that their teens can develop healthy relationships, both on and off-screen, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development has convened a panel of top experts in the fields of parenting, education, child psychology and psychiatry to present the following list of ten helpful tips.
SOME SUPERVISION REQUIRED
Research shows that teens and millennials use social media apps more than anything else on their phones. In addition, those social media apps are the first things that young people access when unlocking their devices, and they’re responsible for most of the notifications they receive. This information has led me to establish the following three guidelines:
- Children under 13 should not be on social media unless they are sitting with a parent who is co-viewing the activity;
- Preteens should be limited to one hour a day under the supervision of a parent until the parent is comfortable [NOTE: it may be smart to have the preteen join a social media site on the parent’s phone until satisfied with their behavior];
- Teenagers should be allowed to use social media between 1 and 3 hours daily, but there should be clear limitations as to the time of day (not near bedtime, for instance) and parents should supervise until satisfied that their child is behaving safely.
Regardless of age, parents should check social media sites with their child/preteen/teenager weekly and discuss any negative behaviors they encounter.
It’s up to parents to set a good example of what healthy screen usage looks like. Don’t walk in the door after work in the middle of a conversation, say a quick hello, and then immediately return to your computer or phone. In the morning, get up a half-hour earlier than your kids and use that time to take care of your email. Give your children your full attention until they’re out the door. It’s the mini-moments of disconnection, when parents are too focused on their devices and screens, that dilute the parent-child relationship.
Adults are not above the lure of digital distractions or occasionally oversharing on social media. Teens take notice, and there’s no magic wand to undo the impact of what they see us modeling day in and day out. In our research, teens describe distracted parents who sleep with their phones mere inches away or who jump to attention at the ping of every email notification, and they express frustration when parents share pictures of them on social media without their consent. Importantly, they also share exasperation with adult rhetoric that scapegoats social media and technology for all of their teenage problems. As adults, we need to avoid getting in our own way and undermining valuable messages and conversations with the behavior we exhibit. To be effective guides, we need to critically examine the digital habits and values we model in view of the young people in our lives. To be sure, the current moment poses challenges since so much of work and life are by necessity carried out on screens, but that just makes modeling strategies and opportunities to step away from them all the more important.
WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON?
Watching your children become consumed with their devices can be extremely frustrating and anxiety-inducing for parents. It’s no wonder that families end up constantly fighting about “screen time.” Rather than solve the problem, though, these fights often just drive kids to sneak around and hide information instead. So what should exhausted parents do? Become your child’s ally. Children need an adult they can trust to have their back as they make their way through the ups and downs of the online world. Kids are also often surprisingly eager to share what they find exciting online, even with a parent. The more that we as parents can show curiosity rather than judgment and openness rather than defensiveness, the more willing our children will be to share what they’re doing online. In addition, assuming the role of an ally the majority of the time means that when you do have to put your foot down or question your children’s digital choices, they’ll be far more willing to listen. Ways to step in and become an ally can range from asking non-judgmental questions about the content they watch (or even, on occasion, watching it with them), playing video games alongside them, following them on social media without commenting, checking in regularly to make sure things are going well in their online relationships, and, most importantly, letting them know that you won’t punish them for their mistakes. Generally, the mistake will be punishment enough, and you don’t want your child to be too afraid to come to you should they find themselves in an uncomfortable or even dangerous situation online.
DON’T JUST SCROLL, CONNECT
Some uses of mobile and social media are healthier than others. Take texting or Instagram DM, for example. Ever since texting and instant messaging became the primary tools of online communication, adolescents have enjoyed them as quick, easy ways to “hang out” with friends online. This type of communication—one-on-one (or one too few), purposeful, and interactive—appears to be a much more beneficial use of mobile and social media than passive and non-purposeful scrolling and browsing. Passive scrolling exposes adolescents to the social media content of their broad peer network, but it doesn’t foster a connection with any particular friend. Our research indicates that adolescents worrying over what their peers think of them or fearing that they are being left out of the fun may be signs of digital stress. Feeling judged negatively or left out by peers is a long-standing source of upset for young people, and certain patterns of mobile and social media use—like endless scrolling—heighten those stressors. Our big takeaway is this: mobile and social media is at its best when adolescents are mindful and purposeful in their use of media, seeking to connect and have fun directly with close friends.
Establish technology-free zones in the house and technology-free hours when no one uses their devices, including mom and dad. Sit down as a family and create a family responsible use agreement designed to protect family time and playtime offline, like no screens at meals, family game time or family walks. With younger children especially, treat the ride to and from school as an important opportunity to connect, one where no phones are allowed. Not only does limiting the amount of time you spend plugged into computers provide a healthy counterpoint to the tech-obsessed world, but it also strengthens the parent-child bond and makes kids feel more secure. Be sure to put your devices down when your kids need you. When kids start turning to the internet for help or to process whatever happened during the day, they may find information that runs counter to your values, isn’t sensitive to their personality, and doesn’t speak to them in a developmentally appropriate way.
A LITTLE MEANS A LOT
I often hear parents express that they feel overwhelmed trying to find a balance between promoting healthy social media use and protecting their children from negative outcomes online. However, small changes in how parents manage their kids’ social media use can make a big difference. I like to offer parents and their teens a menu of healthy social media practices that they can choose to work on. For example, limiting social media use around bedtime (and certainly after bedtime) is a small step that yields big impacts on a child’s sleep health and functioning. Additionally, taking time each day to talk to your teens about positive (and negative) interactions they had with their friends online is another small change that parents report to be helpful. As other tips in this newsletter highlight, it’s important for parents to model healthy digital practices (for example, putting their own phones away before bed), but there are other aspects of social media use that children can learn from their parents, too, including problem solving and emotional awareness. Just as we help our children learn to handle conflict and stress with peers in school, so too should we scaffold problem solving when conflicts arise online. One way I help parents do this is by asking them to label or explain how they handled negative interactions online in prosocial ways. Talking to your teen about similar struggles with their friends or family can be validating and can help model healthy problem-solving strategies. Additionally, parents may wish to label emotions they experience in response to social media interactions, as well as how they coped with those feelings. Helping teens learn how to identify emotions that may be elicited online (and how to deal with them in healthy ways) further normalizes emotional expression and can provide them with an open door to share similar experiences with their parents.
WHEN IN DOUBT, UNPLUG
When feeling out of sorts from high levels of change, most of us need to take a time out, and these days, we typically do that with a screen in our hands. The goal now is to bust this pattern. It’s easy to forget that digital devices are tools. Just as we can use a hammer, saw, or car unwisely, devices with screens and communication abilities can be misused, too. For example, we’d never allow our kids to drink or drive until they reach the legally required ages. Learning how to cook in the kitchen has development and an age-based learning curve, too. For social media and screens, similar rules apply. Go by ratings for TV, movies, and games, and use the age of 13 for social media as a guide to what’s appropriate for your kids. In addition to making wise digital choices, we can also use this time to help our children embrace unplugged hobbies and passions. Some activities, like playing a musical instrument, taking a walk, singing karaoke, playing board games, baking, participating in a book club, or attending a socially distanced picnic, can be done both over Zoom/Facetime or completely offline. These approaches will not only help families navigate the unique situation we’re all currently facing, but also promote healthy long-term digital and online habits.
More teens are struggling with mental health concerns than ever before. Our research shows that adolescents who deal with depression, anxiety, body image concerns, disordered eating, and suicidal thoughts may need extra support when it comes to their social media use. For example, if your teen suffers from depression, it’s especially important to help them maximize the critical benefits of social media (e.g., connecting with friends) while minimizing its risks (e.g., interfering with sleep). Work with your teen to notice when and how social media is impacting their mood, as well as how their mood is impacting their use of social media. You know your child best, and your knowledge of their unique strengths and vulnerabilities is an important tool. Consider an approach that balances warm, open conversation (e.g., “How did you feel when you saw that post?”) with structured limit-setting (e.g., no phones in the bedroom at night) to promote your teen’s mental health in the digital world.
FACE TIME OVER FACETIME
Teens are masters at keeping themselves occupied from the moment school ends until way past their bedtime, texting, sharing, trolling, and scrolling on their phones for hours. Before everyone had an Instagram account, teens kept themselves busy, too, but they were more likely to do their chatting on the phone or in person. It may have looked like a lot of aimless hanging around, but what they were doing was experimenting, trying out skills, and succeeding and failing in tons of tiny real-time interactions that kids today are missing out on. As a species, we are very highly attuned to reading social cues, but with texting and online communication, body language, facial expression, and subtle vocal reactions are rendered invisible. That makes it more important than ever for parents to encourage their teens to put down their devices and have direct, face-to-face conversations (while still following safe and healthy practices during the pandemic, of course).