By age 10, many children already have social media accounts on sites like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat, even though these sites require that users be 13 or older. If you’ve spent any time on social media, you know that it can have an influence on mental wellbeing–both positive and negative.
While many of us jump online as an entertaining distraction, too much social media can invite feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression. As adults, most of us can recognize when it’s time for a break. But if you’ve ever tried to get a child off of a video game, you know that most kids don’t have a strong sense of limits. Given the opportunity, my kids would play video games from morning until midnight!
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids who spend too much time on social media are at risk for mental health issues like depression, anxiety and distorted body image, which can lead to eating disorders. Like many adults, they can easily fall into the trap of believing that other people’s lives are better then theirs. Furthermore, exposure to negative news, alarming photos and videos, as well as toxic individuals can heighten feelings of anxiety, fear and hopelessness.
The good news is there are ways to guide our kids toward healthy social media consumption that will help them create a more well-rounded, fulfilling life.
Define your boundaries. Besides depression and anxiety, the more time kids spend on social media, the more problems can arise from invasions of privacy and sleep deprivation to cyberbullying. Establish family rules around when and where electronics are allowed in your home. Involve your kids in the discussion. Role model healthy electronics use by following the rules you create. Create a charging station where everyone’s devices are turned in by a particular time each evening.
Talk about social media. Remind your kids that what’s happening in their friends’ social media lives isn’t the complete picture. Social media posts are simply snapshots of people’s more complex lives–sides of themselves that they choose to share. No matter how beautiful the selfie or enviable the status, everyone has their own set of problems they’re dealing with.
Consider if your child is really ready for social media. Read up about the different social media sites that your child wants to join. Common Sense Media is a good resource. Be aware that many of these platforms have age limits for a reason, depicting subject matter that your child may not be developmentally ready to handle. Consider your child’s personality. Do they tend to be impulsive? Do they understand that nothing they post is private? How well do they communicate with others via text and email? How will you stay in the loop? Are you willing to check in regularly and have discussions about smart online decisions? Will they talk to you if they see or experience something that bothers or worries them?
Discuss privacy. Make sure privacy setting are in use and that your kids only friend people they know in real life. Learn everything you can about a platform that your child wants to join. Join it first to see what it’s like. Some apps don’t have strong privacy protections and can open the door for strangers to message them. How will your kids handle those types of messages if you permit them to use these sorts of apps? Discuss the type of personal information should they never share online. Remind them that anything sent through messaging apps or posted online can be shared outside their network. A question they might ask themselves before posting: “Would I want Grandma (or my favorite teacher, etc.) to see this?” Set up restrictions on their phones that require a parent to enter a password before they can download an app. This way they will come to you first to discuss the app they want and you can decide together if it’s a good idea.
Take a digital sabbath. Choose a day of the week when your family unplugs from social media and the online world. This is an opportunity to simply be in the present and pursue personal interests without worrying about the rest of the world, other than the people who matter most to you in the here and now. If this is difficult at first, plan ahead. Invite another family over for an early dinner. Go on a family hike or bike ride. Take your child shopping or for an outing. Make it a family game day with indoor or outdoor games. Arrange for a neighborhood barbecue.
Strike a balance. Encourage and push your child to get involved in activities at school. Outside of school, help them discover activities that give them a sense of purpose, personal satisfaction and that nurture their self-confidence. They’ll begin to develop friendships around shared interests so that when they do go online, they’ll be less willing to put up with obnoxious, mean-spirited individuals and focus more on attracting positive, uplifting people into their online universe.