One basic guideline is to ensure that time spent on social media does not replace sleep, exercise, or other healthy behaviors.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is creating anxiety for adults and children alike. One major source of anxiety for many parents is the significant increase in daily screen time as grown-ups and children alike turn to technology for education, work, entertainment, and social connection. Social media use is just one small part of how kids are currently engaging with technology, but often feels like one of the more fraught and challenging areas for parents to navigate. How much is too much? How can you ensure your child uses social media safely? Have the rules changed in the “new normal?”

This updated post from Magination Press author, Julia Martin Burch, PhD, offers some strategies to manage your child’s social media use in this challenging time.

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 it is overused.

Research is still being conducted about the impact of social media on children. However due to the pandemic, social media use has now become an important part of daily life. Children across the country are turning to social media as a critical way to stay in touch with friends during the quarantine. While using social media may help many kids feel connected to their friends, some may find it stressful or struggle to navigate it appropriately. Here are some tips to manage the new normal:

Healthy Social Media Use

Monitoring a child’s social media usage is a huge 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? (This may look different than the limits you would set outside of the current crisis). 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 (outside of the hours your child needs to be online for schoolwork while schools are closed).

Now , more than ever, it’s important to 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 or “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. Your ratio of time spent on screens versus off screens may look different during the current crisis and that’s okay. What’s important is that you make mindful, aware choices about your social media usage day to day rather than getting swept up in mindless use. If you (like most people!) find it hard to disengage from your social media news feed, consider sharing this with your children. You can use this as a starting point for a family-wide conversation about social media use and the strategies that might be helpful for unplugging and tuning in to the present moment. 

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 is also important to teach your child or teen about cyberbullying and the importance of telling an adult or seeking help should it occur.

Finally, talk with your children and teens about how what they see on social media does not always reflect reality. Social media can be used to spread information, but can include misinformation, and rumors can travel particularly fast during times of crisis. Educate your children about the importance of relying on dependable news sources to get information about the pandemic. Consider going through their social media feed together to help them notice and think critically about how the posts they see on the pandemic might or might not reflect reality. You might also help them reflect on how dramatic or sensationalized posts make them feel and act. Help them learn to be a critical consumer of social media content. 

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. To find a psychologist near you, click here.

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.