Social Media — A safety guide for parents

By Kathy Scherer, PhD. Is it safe? Phones, tablets, and computers are everywhere and essential to families. Children need electronic devices for school and to communicate with friends. Parents use them to connect with children and to ensure safety when they are separated due to travel, work, or other responsibilities. When children use social media to interact with others the potential benefits are huge, as are the problems. Media is an amazing resource for families when used thoughtfully, but it can also open them up to various risks.

Children

Our society is saturated with social media and the percentage of children using media is rising every year. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has made recommendations to parents and pediatrician for media use: 1) limit children’s recreational screen time to two hours a day, 2) create screen free zones at home (e.g. bedrooms and dining room), and 3) turn off all screens during meals to increase family connection time. They recommend that children balance their play time with educational media and non-electronic sources of entertainment such as books and games. For babies and toddlers under the age of 2 years, AAP recommends avoiding all entertainment media via screens. A toddler’s brain is rapidly growing and needs human contact and interaction to help it develop. During childhood, ages 3–10 years, the brain is growing critical functions such as body-brain integration, social skills, language skills, and visual-spacial abilities. Children are learning how to learn and how to interact with the world. Basically, children require a wide breadth of physical, cognitive and emotional experiences in life to help their bodies and minds develop physically and neurologically for their future.

All children crave time to run and play, explore outdoors, and connect with others in order to develop physical health, emotional skills and a strong neurological base. Excessive online media use has been linked to increased rates of depression, school problems, sleep disruption, and eating disorders. Recent data indicates that 75% of children have access to mobile devices at home. Children between the ages of 8 to 10 years are currently averaging 5 to 7 hours a day on computers, mobile devices, and televisions. Another study found that toddlers are also increasing media use with over 38% of children under the age of 2 years using tablets or mobile phones.

Children need adult supervision and guidance for all media use. Parents might naively assume that sites visited by their children are safe, since their friends’ children also play there and the sites are designed for kids — so they must be okay. Mostly this is true, but sometimes it is not. Today’s children are on devices so often that parents can’t easily tell whether they are doing homework or connecting with others online. It is a delicate balance to supervise without hovering over your children. Most parents know it is not good to hover like a helicopter (hovering causes other problems, this is for another blog post). Nevertheless, young children require supervision with online activity and teens benefit from parental guidance as well.

A simple way to increase safety is to regularly check out what children are doing on their devices, just as we would if they were going out to a new place with a friend. Be kindly curious. Where are they going, what are they planning to do, and who will be there? Children need the same parental involvement online as they do in other areas of life. Parents should visit the sites that their children use regularly to ensure safe and age appropriate content. Check out website reviews and age ratings. It can feel overwhelming to try to understand the constantly changing landscape of social media. But, we must try.

Starting at a young age parents can set expectation for media involvement by joining their children in online networks and games. This sets the standard for parental involvement at an early age. Then over time they can then reduce supervision as the child matures. Letting a young child go off on his own with social media and internet, to deal with whatever is out there, is irresponsible and potentially harmful. Don’t be overly paranoid about experimenting, as there are many safe and educational places for children to play online, but parents are needed to sort it out. There are also real dangers in the world and the anonymity of online social activity can attract troublemakers and offenders. Parents can use their concern as an opportunity to discuss and educate children about securing safety and privacy, as well as avoiding media manipulation tactics (e.g. advertising).

Teenagers

Teenagers require a sensitive approach to asking about their online social world. It is healthy for them to seek respect for their privacy and to want to build independence. However teens lack the life experience and emotional maturity to wisely navigate the sophisticated online world alone.

The teenage brain is undergoing major neurological changes between the ages of 13 to 17 years, rewiring and pruning neurons to create the foundation for the adult brain, which will be more efficient and accurate than the child brain. How teens spend their time influences this critical process. Diverse creative, intellectual, physical and social-emotional experiences will help them develop a strong and flexible neurological base for adulthood. Think of the popular saying “Use it or lose it.” Our brains are flexible and can build strengths in adulthood, but it is best to learn and grow body and mind in youth when the time is optimal for development. In adulthood, change and growth can happen, but they are slower, more difficult, and less reliable.

A lot of growth and maturity occurs between the ages of 12 and 17 years. Usually a 13 year old is less sophisticated than a 16 year old in terms of online socializing. Younger teens are still new at independence and they are building confidence in social arenas. They are often open to adult involvement, and they still need healthy limits from parents to keep them out of trouble. Older teens (15–17) are less likely to welcome parental supervision and have a need for more space to learn from their mistakes and successes. Yet, they also benefit from adult support and guidance to stay safe and healthy.

Primarily parents can serve as emotional supports for older teens. Expressing open, non-judgmental curiosity about their activities can feel caring when the relationships is trusting and without fears of parental criticism. Teens are vulnerable to emotional swings and irrationality due to normal changes in their brains during these years. Research suggests that our prefrontal cortex, the seat of our attention and good judgment, is not fully formed until our late 20’s. Parents can help teens by being a friendly guide or mentor, respecting teen’s personal feelings and offering guidance with the intention of avoiding social hazards (such as rejection or bullying) and supporting positive experiences.

My young teen daughter informs me that she and her friends ‘don’t talk on the phone anymore;’ social media is how they connect. This is the hub around which they socialize and learn from each other. It is a valuable medium when balanced with other forms of connection. One way parents can help young teens find balance is by encouraging them to get together with friends face to face, the old fashioned way. Most kids still fully embrace face time with friends over media use. You can help to encourage and create these opportunities by offering to host a social gathering or taking them someplace that they enjoy.

Social Media

Is Snapchat safe? How about Facebook, Instagram or online gaming? Your teenagers probably know more about this world than you do. Younger teens may welcome their parents into a shared space and enjoy showing them what they have learned. You don’t have to post on ‘Instagram’ regularly, which could be seen as intrusive by some children, but keep a loose connection. Also, talking with other parents and teachers can be a great way to check out the social territory and any online concerns. If problems are cropping up in your child’s online community, you want to know about it. Nonetheless, everyone’s experience is different and nothing can replace your own experience with the sites for securing your child’s comfort and safety.

Parents and teachers are concerned about social media bullying, feelings of rejection, social comparisons, obsessive time online, and delayed social-emotional growth. This raises a series of questions: Is social media considered social skill building or avoidance? When is it good to use a tablet as entertainment for children? When is playing online for hours innocent fun and when is it unhealthy or even pathological? Where is my child safe and where is it dangerous?

The answer is ‘It depends.’ Although there is research that indicates that long hours online are tied to increased risk of depression and anxiety, it still depends on the child and the situation. Paying attention to your children’s emotional experience is the greatest resource for securing their safety. One size does not fit all. Although the AAP guidelines above offer wise suggestions for containing media use by children, it cannot replace the wisdom you can acquire by talking with and educating your child about online media benefits and pitfalls. Parents of teens can also work to understand their teen’s personal experiences with social media. Teenagers are swimming in sophisticated and complex social waters. Even if parents talk about safety, security, and bullying online, teens may dismiss it, assuming they know better. Still, parents want their teens to know what they are facing out there, to increase safety, and to offer guidance when they will take it. Parents can be a supportive guide in the process, while respecting the teen’s need to build their own competence.

Adults also serve as role models, so take an honest look at your own media use. Personally, I feel that I use my phone too often and too freely. It takes conscious effort to not let it interfere with family time. What do you model for your kids with your cell phone, tablet, or computer? Are you using sites that are respectful and safe? Ideally, parents can share their own online experience with children and teens as an example of healthy use and appropriate online boundaries. Also, parents serve as an example of knowing when to sign off and make connection with each other in person. (Do as I Do, Not as I Say)

Create Trust

Parents give the best gift when they are emotionally available, attentive, and create a safe environment for open discussion. Building a positive, trusting connection with children is a prerequisite to the child integrating parental guidance, particularly for teens. The more they trust, the more they open to input. When children anticipate support from adults they feel safe to receive feedback; when children expect criticism they will close off.

Face to face time with family and friends builds healthy emotional and cognitive growth; basic eye to eye contact is irreplaceable. Real time interactions bring a non-verbal and unconscious sense of attachment and security, even without words being exchanged. It can be found in the softness of the face, the concern in the eyes, or the smile on the face. Although face-to-face connections are not always possible or practical, they should remain the primary way to interact.

The Future

Our children’s brains are changing in ways we can only imagine. Adult brains are changing too, including less reliance on memory, impatience with reading, and less focused attention. Research suggests that this is, in part, due to constant stimulation and endless resources at our finger tips such as Google searches and Wikipedia. These resources are amazing and immensely valuable. And growing up in a world with these resources produces a different kind of person. Our children will be different from us, and more than us, but that is good.

The next generation’s experience of connection and knowledge will be different from anything we have seen before. It is humbling to watch. Parents: Stay curious, supportive, and sensitive to what is happening around you. Prioritize time for face-to-face communication. The physical touch and warmth of close connections is the base of intimate attachments. No media can ever replace the warmth and joy shared in time spent with those we love.

American Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines:

Children and Media: American Academy of Pediatrics.

Safety Net: American Academy of Pediatrics.

Social Media Statistics:

Digital Kids Summit: September 2015.

Zero to Eight: Common Sense Media.

Concerns about children, social media, and technology use: Pew Research Center.

Media Consumption Statistics: Parenting.com.


The Heart and Work of Parenting blog is the written by two Psychologists, Drs. Kathy Scherer and Elizabeth Sylvester, who live and work in the heart of family life. They bring their expertise on emotional development, family attachments, neurobiology, and current scientific research to their work. The contents of this blog are sections of a book in progress; we welcome any thoughtful feedback. Website: Heart and Work.

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