How to Use Social Media Without Eliminating the Fun

Every family is different, and every individual is unique, so the parameters and rules that are put in place about what users have access to and how much time is spent on social media must reflect these nuances accordingly. The best piece of advice? Families must work together to establish and implement an appropriate social media plan that creates a sense of balance between time spent on personal devices and other activities. Most importantly, that plan must work for them. No one else matters. The popular belief that the answer lies only with parental supervision is overly simplistic and misguided. Our children are extremely savvy when it comes to accessing and navigating the digital world. They know how to access content and hide it from parents and teachers. Despite age limitations for certain social media platforms, 40% of 8-12-year-olds establish an identity on social media platforms. And while it is easy to assert your rights as a parent or an academic entity and monitor your user’s every move and post, there is something to be said about the importance of respecting his or her privacy, particularly as they near legal age. All of this is to say parents and teachers need to consider how, not whether, kids will use it.

Where do we start? To begin with, Dr. Murthy recommends that families delay the introduction of social media. Before younger users enter this virtual world, they need to understand (and demonstrate mastery of this information) the risks and benefits of its use. Parents need to demonstrate appropriate and healthy boundaries when it comes to using social media. The conversation needs to be ongoing as the issues related to social media use will evolve as children grow and mature. Just as kids need to be willing to hear their parents’ concerns, so too must parents be able to hear their kids’ concerns and the challenges they face as developing youngsters as they navigate this virtual realm.

Here are some other recommendations from both Dr. Murthy and the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Establish device-free zones in the home including the dinner table and bedrooms. Phones do not need to be a part of family mealtimes and should remain in another part of the house until meals have concluded. Phones need to remain outside the bedroom when it’s time to go to sleep.
  • Establish time parameters or duration of use. Interestingly, in research that studied the impact of reduced use on mental health, psychologists found that reducing the amount of time spent on social media has improved mental health for both young adults and adults. Limiting use to 30 minutes per day over the course of three weeks resulted in significant improvement in depression. A separate study found that deactivating social media accounts for one month resulted in “improved subjective well-being” including satisfaction with life, happiness, and a decrease in anxiety and depression.
  • Collaborate with the parents and families of your children’s peers. If possible, discuss universal guidelines that all of the families in your social network can follow.
  • Educate your children about online predators and safety strategies. Children should not engage with people they do not know. They should not share personal information in public domains or with people they do not know. They should never make arrangements to meet in person with someone they do not know.
  • Teach your children about their digital footprint: the posts they make stay in the digital atmosphere for a long time. Don’t post anything you would not want an older relative to see. Older students must understand that colleges look at their social presence. There have been instances in which admissions to colleges have been revoked because they did not like what they saw on an admittee’s social media platform. Some schools have dedicated staff whose only responsibility is to search their applicants’ social media platforms; they take it that seriously.
  • Words and images are just as hurtful as a physical blow to the gut. Be respectful when posting content online as what someone says can be potentially devastating. Just like toothpaste, once it’s out there, it cannot be taken back.
  • Never ever share explicit photos of yourself with anyone online, even people you know. You cannot trust that this content will stay with your intended audience, even if they are a friend or significant other. Relationships fray; people get angry with each other; and poor decisions are made. When these circumstances happen, there’s no limit as to what can happen with that suggestive photo you shared with others.
  • Do not accept invitations to participate in inappropriate challenges. There is never a time when putting yourself or others in a compromised position or danger is ok.
  • Parents need to know the signs of trouble:
    • Disrupted sleep
    • Little to no time allocated to exercise or time spent outdoors
    • Poor academic performance
    • Sudden or gradual change in affect or mood
    • Refusal to surrender digital devices
    • Inability to engage in activity with others offline

Social media is a powerful communication tool replete with multiple layers. We cannot deny the benefits it provides all of us, including children, adolescents, and teenagers. Friendships are forged; inspiring and stimulating conversations are taking place; intriguing solutions to complicated problems are discovered; and people feel validated and secure as a result of belonging to communities that offer members mutually beneficial support and celebration. Acknowledging the dangers and drawbacks of social media does not detract from these advantages at all, but it does lend itself to opening up an important and very necessary conversation in our homes and our schools. All of us need to understand how to safely navigate this powerful tool, particularly children, adolescents, and teens, whose minds are still developing and so very vulnerable. We have an obligation to look out for our children’s physical and emotional wellbeing, and the relationship between the use of social media and its impact on the mental health of our children has been repeatedly demonstrated time and time again. The time for these conversations was long ago, but in the face of what we now know, it is incumbent upon all of us to start a dialogue today and keep the lines of communication open as young users evolve and grow. Our children are using or will start using social media; that’s an inevitable fact. Just as you would never allow your children to wander aimlessly and alone in a busy city, so too must we not allow them to use social media without guidelines and safety precautions. For the sake of our kids, start talking today.