How are you reading this article right now? On your phone? Tablet? Likely because you came across this article on one of your social media feeds. As your life right now likely illustrates, access to screens and, subsequently, to social media has increased tremendously in recent years and is now nearly ubiquitous. Accordingly, children are growing up immersed in a culture in which social connection, information and entertainment are available at one’s fingertips. There are many positive aspects to the level of connection and access technology and social media afford children, including opportunities to easily connect with friends and learn and expand their awareness and horizons beyond their local environment. But like with any activity, there can be negative components of children’s access to social media and screens–particularly when they are overused.

What We Know (Or Rather What We Don’t!)

While it is understandable that many parents are worried about the impact of social media on their children, it is also important to be a cautious and critical consumer of dramatic headlines about the impacts of social media. At present, there is still fairly limited research on the impact of social media usage on children. Additionally, many of the studies that have been conducted are “correlational” in nature, meaning while the study tells us that two things (such as social media use and anxiety) appear to be related, it cannot tell us the “direction” of that relationship, or which one causes the other. For example, a number of studies have found that high Facebook use is correlated with symptoms of depression; therefore, while using Facebook could lead someone to feel more sad, it could also be that individuals who are already somewhat depressed spend more time isolated and using social media, rather than going out and engaging with others.

One increasingly studied area is the potential relationship between heavy social media use and anxiety. Though there is still no conclusive evidence, researchers and clinicians have proposed that anxiety and heavy social media use may have a reciprocal relationship. Specifically, children and teens more prone to social anxiety may use social media in part to avoid the potentially challenging or awkward moments that can come up in face to face interactions with peers. In the short run, this is an effective way to avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions, however, in the long run, these children and teens are deprived of the opportunity to learn to navigate challenging social situations. They also do not get the chance to learn how to cope with the uncomfortable emotions that may result from challenging interactions such as anxiety or shame. Over time, this lack of practice may lead to deficits both in social skills and emotion regulation abilities, which could, in turn, cause the child to further avoid real life social interactions.

Healthy Social Media Use

Monitoring a child’s social media usage is a new parenting challenge. Luckily, the principles behind teaching your child how to responsibly use and engage with social media are similar to those you would use to teach your child how to handle any other temptation or challenging situation.

Find Balance

Think mindfully and proactively about the role you want social media to play in your children’s lives and in your family more broadly. How do you want your children and yourself to balance time spent on social media and screens versus time engaging in other activities? One basic guideline is to ensure that time spent on social media does not replace sleep, exercise, or other healthy behaviors. One step you might take to support this is to set limits on how much each family member can use screens each day (e.g., 2 hours per day? Less?).

Create family-wide “screen-free” areas and time periods. Potential screen-free areas include the bedroom and the dining room. Screen-free times might include meals, hectic transitions such as getting ready for school, “family time” before or after dinner in the evening and bedtime. It can be very helpful to have all family members charge their screens overnight in the kitchen, rather than having them in the bedroom. If your family needs additional support with reducing social media use, there are several apps that turn off wifi and phone data at predetermined times (e.g, 9 pm).

Be an Example

Model effective, balanced use of social media yourself. Abide by the same guidelines you set for your child or teen in terms of when and where screens can be used. Do your best to be fully present with your family during screen free times and try not to let the online world creep into your offline world.

Socialize Safely

You teach your child or teen how to be a good friend and to stay safe in social situations offline–kids need the same training around social media use. Discuss how to be a responsible user of social media, including the importance of respectful language and kindness to others–even if they are not physically in front of you. Help your child or teen think through what they do and do not want to share about themselves online and the potential repercussions of sharing too much.

It’s also important to talk with your children and teens about how what they see on social media does not always reflect reality. Ask them about how they think the glamorous, perfected lives depicted on social media might impact their views of the world and themselves. Consider going through their social media feed together occasionally to help them notice and think critically about how the images they see might or might not reflect reality. Finally, teach your child or teen about cyberbullying and the importance of telling an adult or seeking help should it occur.

For further ideas on how to help your child develop skills to use social media effectively, consider reading the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Recommendations on Children’s Media Use. The AAP also offers an online, interactive tool designed to help families develop personalized social media plans.

When To Seek Help

Consider seeking help from a licensed mental health professional if your child or teen’s use of social media or screens is negatively impacting their functioning or causing major conflict in your family. For example, if you see your child excessively using his phone and, without being able to stop, using social media or screens in a destructive way, such as cyberbullying or being bullied, or if media use is interfering with sleep, consider seeking support. It can be very helpful to work with a mental health professional to develop and implement a “screen time plan” for your family. These plans are often most effective when they are made collaboratively with input from parents and children or teens.

by Julia Martin Burch, PhD

This Article's Author

Julia Martin Burch, PhD is a staff psychologist at the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital in Boston. Dr. Martin Burch completed her training at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.She works with children, teens, and parents and specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, obsessive compulsive, and related disorders. Outside of her work at McLean, Dr. Martin Burch gives talks to clinicians, parent groups, and schools on working with anxious youth.

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