Everywhere we go, faces are bathed in the glow of electronic screens. Kids pursue Pokémon characters with their smartphones. Teens carry on lengthy text conversations with friends and count their “likes” on Instagram. Moms update their Facebook timelines. It’s no surprise to anyone that social media use has increased at warp speed. But is that good for developing children?
According to statistics gathered in 2015, children ages 8 to 12 spend six hours a day using media, including watching online video, listening to music, and playing games; 13- to 18-year-olds spend nine hours. That’s not counting the time they are using computers and apps such as Apple Schoolwork or Google Classroom to do their homework.
Pluses and minuses
On the plus side, using social media promotes teens’ engagement with a broad range of other individuals and groups, exposes them to new ideas, and raises their awareness of current events and issues. Teens can easily and anonymously research concerns about substance use or sexual health, and can quickly get help in a crisis.
On the negative side, depression and anxiety have been linked to social media use, with heavy users more often saying they are sad, bored, and less contented. However, it’s not clear whether the deep dive into media use leads to the anxiety and depression, or the other way around.
Some kids may feel inadequate when comparing their lives to their peers’ online personas.
Increased screen time is associated with being overweight, getting insufficient sleep, and multitasking that contributes to poor school performance. For instance, 60 percent of kids report using social media while doing homework.
Add concerns about sexting and privacy to all that, and parents have lots to think about.
So, what can parents do?
When it comes to guiding children toward healthful, helpful social media use, communication is key. Discuss limits with them early, and agree on rules that are clear and simple, such as not allowing devices at the dinner table, when guests are visiting or after a certain time at night.
Get a sense of how your children are using media. For example, watch YouTube or play video games with your kids, and ask what they like about them.
Consider the quality and quantity of media your children are using. Common Sense, a nonprofit, provides a wealth of resources to help parents identify positive media and technology resources.
Encourage striving for online safety by using privacy limits, not oversharing, not “friending” strangers.
Emphasize using media for learning and creating and not simply for a passive way to kill time.
Most important, be a good role model. Consider your own media use, adjust it if necessary, and agree to follow the household rules.
Sarah Rocha, MD, is chief fellow in the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at The Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University and is affiliated with Bradley Hospital.