Not so long ago, “screen time” referred to the hours children spent parking in front of the subway or playing video games. Today, they also use their tablets and smartphones to exchange messages with friends, share video clips and collect “likes” by posting photos. These forms of social media, which allow people to disseminate information publicly and connect well beyond the people they actually know, can be confusing for parents. But you might want to, because according to a 2015 Common Sense Media survey, 45% of teens use social media every day, spending an average of an hour and 11 minutes interacting on their devices.
How can parents make sure children use social media safely and appropriately? When the American Academy of Pediatrics released its latest recommendations for media use by school-aged children and teens last October, it didn’t endorse any specific screen time limits. Instead, he said getting enough sleep and physical activity should be a priority, and family rules should take into account the media used and the individual child. Pediatricians noted that research has identified both positive and negative effects of social media on physical and mental health. For advice on how you can help keep your own children’s experiences positive, US News & World Report spoke to Devorah Heitner, Founder of Raising Digital Natives and Author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World “. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How should parents view the role of social media in their child’s life?
You can safely say that social media is not necessary. But it is quite important. Friends play an important role in defining one’s social identity. And social media is a portal for friends. The same urge that made you sleep late at night on the phone is now driving kids to log onto Snapchat or Musical.ly, a platform for creating and sharing short music videos. And social media can support your child’s interests. It’s a way out without needing adults to drive somewhere or give permission.
You say it’s good for kids to master texting first. Why?
Sending SMS is a crucial skill. If you’re going to send your kids to eighth grade or high school without the ability to text, how are they going to plan? It would be the modern equivalent of the family without a telephone. Additionally, group texting allows kids to be social online, but in a less public and archived way than social media. There are fewer opportunities to damage your reputation and it consumes less than social media, which is more of a burrow of possible distractions.
How old should children be when they venture out on social media?
The minimum age for many apps is 13, although many children use them at 10, 11, and 12. The rule is largely broken. At a younger age, it is more important for parents to coach and supervise.
You want your kids to be mature enough to understand the concepts of relationships, reputation, and time management. With relationships, kids need to understand the difference between a friend and someone who follows them on social media. You can tell them about people in your life who were there when a sibling was born or who traveled with you. They are real friends. If your child is 8 years old and attends Musical.ly, you might demand that you know everyone they are connected with. At age 12, you may want the child to know all of their connections personally. And at an older age, say 16, maybe it’s OK to connect online with other people who have similar interests.
What do you think of the reputation?
We tell kids to watch their behavior on social media with warnings like “You won’t go to college.” It won’t work at 11. What you can say is, “Your friends’ parents can check. Will they want you to come to their house for dinner if you posted a crass joke? At 16, it’s realistic to say there are college and career implications. And you can say, “Yeah, you can get kicked from the team for a picture of you pretending to be drinking.” “
What about time management?
Children probably need practical help with this. You can say no overnight access, no access until the homework is done. And think about your own actions. If you text your child during the day, you undermine the idea that school is a place for school activities.
Should parents monitor their children’s accounts?
There is no benefit in secretly monitoring accounts. What do you do if you see something wrong? Do not say anything? How bad must that be? But you can openly monitor new users. You can say, “I’m going to check your texts for the first year, and this is what I’m looking for.” Be clear that you want to make sure she isn’t using a potty online or passing around inappropriate photos. You can also control their passwords to gain access to their accounts.
It is better to supervise than to supervise. For example, you can talk about when to share news. Do you share news that is not yours? You can talk about what is public and what is private in general, what does not come out of the family. You can lead by example by letting your kids share their own acceptances in college and not doing it yourself.
And we can say that it is not rude to choose not to connect with someone. You don’t have to say yes. We can also talk about time limits. Help them tell their friends that they can’t text after 9pm. Otherwise, they might feel anxious if their friends text at 10 p.m. and they don’t respond. And ask them to find out what their friends’ limits are, too, so that they can be respectful.
We also want to teach kids when it’s time to go talk to someone in person. If there is a conflict with a friend, it is better to go see that friend; the more important the relationship, the more important it is to have face to face contact. Children may find it inconvenient. But they must learn that anything that is really important can be awkward, and that hitting back at the keyboard can have negative consequences.
How can parents keep up to date with what their kids are up to online?
It’s good to understand what apps they’re on, so you’ll know what they’re talking about when they say they’re staying up late to keep their Snapstreak on Snapchat. But some adults are complete non-voters. At this point, you might see if you have a niece or nephew willing to step into the sandbox with them. It can be a good reminder for children that someone they trust is watching and can talk to their parents. It’s also someone they can turn to for advice or help. I don’t think we want them to be out there without guidance as new users.
Parents may want to let their children know that they can always use it as an excuse. It will not work beyond a certain age. But for younger people it can be very helpful to say, “My dad is looking at my phone and I don’t want to be punished. It’s a positive way for kids not to get carried away.
If a child is bullied or someone asks them to cheat, these are situations where we want children to come to us for help. And we need to be clear that every time someone tells them not to tell their parents, that’s a huge red flag.
Some research has linked social media use by tweens and teens with reduced life satisfaction to depression. What do you think about this?
We know some of the ways social media can affect kids – and all of us. Standards can make us feel bad. If the norm seems to be for everyone in our community to go on spring break because the five people we see the most on social media are going, we might feel helpless. There is also exclusion, seeing things from which we are excluded. We need to help children take a step back. They have to learn to stop following someone. We can support and guide the children in their thinking: “Does it make me feel good to spend hours watching parties to which I have not been invited? “
If kids are anxious and social media seems to increase their anxiety, I would speak directly with them and try to help them find balance. If your kid is particularly impulsive or has trouble dealing with aggression, I’d see how long you can wait on social media and then start with small steps, like texting from a shared device. The challenge with mental health issues like self-harm or eating disorders is that at worst, kids can find practical information on social media or websites.
Children who are socially withdrawn will not necessarily see their lives improved by being on social media. So don’t force a child who is struggling to access social media in the hopes that it will improve their popularity. It’s important for all of us to remember that social media is a performance. Other people share a tiny slice of experience – the slice they think will generate the most approval.
Children need to understand that they can also unintentionally make people feel excluded.
If possible, try to help children get there themselves. Ask them what might be a good rule for birthday parties. I wouldn’t condemn them to post a birthday photo on Instagram, but talk about your own experiences: “Loved seeing Aunt Lucy’s destination wedding on social media, but it was a bit difficult because we were not invited. ” Ask them to share with you the kind of photos that are best not to post to prevent others from feeling left out.
What about the implications of being constantly engaged with a device in general?
Research shows that having a phone lowers the quality of the conversation. For the record, many of us have experienced this. My own research is qualitative, and when I ask kids to design problem-solving apps, many say they want an app to keep their parents off the phone!
When I’m at home working on my laptop, I shut it down to talk, or I say I’m working and can talk later. In my family, we call it “turning into a screen monster” when someone isn’t really listening. But you can also have fun onscreen – reading together on a Kindle or iPad, for example, or playing games together. Screen time can be a positive time for the family.