7 effective ways to keep your children safe
Teens today are the first generation to grow up in the age of social media. Many have spent their entire lives with a smartphone in their hands. Their lives have revolved around the online communities of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram. According to the Pew Research Center, 72% of teens say they check their phones as soon as they get up in the morning.
But what if the thing they find essential to their lives has the potential to cause them great and lasting harm? Although parenting has never been easy, two-thirds of parents in the U.S. say social media has made their job of parenting much harder. The World Health Organization has come out with new strict guidelines for the amount of screen time your children should spend.
- No screen time for children under 2 years
- Only 60 minutes for children aged 3-4
Studies have shown that too much screen time has been linked to behavioral problems, poor sleep, and language delay. The BMJ Open found a link between screen time and a variety of health issues including obesity, anxiety, eating disorders, poor self-esteem, and hyperactivity and inattention.
By the time children reach their teens, they are communicating with their friends almost entirely online. We humans are social beings. Rather than face-to-face interaction, teens are communicating via email and texts creating weak social ties. A report done by a Chicago children’s hospital shows that 68% of parents think social media is affecting the teen’s ability to socialize normally.
Roughly a thousand teens were surveyed by Common Sense Media about their social media use. About one-third of them said they never or rarely put their phones away when doing homework or visiting with their family or eating a meal with someone. Even though nearly half (44%) get frustrated by their friends’ phubbing, or snubbing someone they are talking with in person in favor of their phones, over half (54%) admit to phubbing themselves, but struggle to stop.
It’s not just their behavior or social skills that are affected. Too much screen time can change the structure of their brains. A study done by Dr. John Hutton, a pediatrician and clinical researcher at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, showed that preschool-aged children exposed to higher amounts of screen time had lower levels of development in the brain’s white matter—an area that takes up half the brain and is responsible for our language development, reading comprehension, and cognitive skills. It doesn’t take long for the brain to become rewired. In a UCLA study, web users showed significant changes in the neural structures in the prefrontal cortex after only five hours of internet use over the course of one week.
There is also a dark side to social media. In addition to behavior issues, mental health issues, and potential brain rewiring, children on social media are exposed to cyberbullying, sexting, and online predators. Recently, it has been revealed that for the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into how Instagram has negatively affected the emotional and mental health of young users. They’ve known for some time that Instagram makes body image issues, anxiety, and depression worse for teenage girls.
Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, testified before Congress that Facebook knew the damage it was inflicting on teenage girls, but consistently chose to maximize its growth rather than implement safeguards on its platform. One Facebook study, Haugen said, that found that 13.5% of U.K. teen girls in one survey said that after viewing posts on Instagram, they had suicidal thoughts. In addition, 17% of teen girls said their eating disorders became worse after using Instagram. About 32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.
Haugen, who is a Harvard graduate, worked previously at several tech giants such as Pinterest, Yelp, and Google before she was hired at Facebook for her expertise on algorithms and misinformation just before the 2020 presidential election. She left after just two years on the job because she felt her concerns were not being heard including her worries over potential dangers to vulnerable users on Instagram which is owned by Facebook. She points to research that shows the platform can be toxic for teens contributing to eating disorder for teenage girls.
“Kids are saying I am unhappy when I use Instagram, and I can’t stop. If I leave, I’m afraid I’ll be ostracized.”
What can parents do to balance the importance of social media in their children’s lives with their need to protect their safety and mental well-being? Here are 7 effective ways to keep your child safe:
Talk to your children about the pros and cons of social media well before they’re on. Discuss how the values and guidelines you follow in real life apply online, too. Then, put together a plan that everyone in the family will abide by when it comes to social media use. Before they’re even on social media, let them know how much screen time is acceptable. Help them understand the meaning of social media time limits by setting those same time limits on watching TV or game consoles.
Set a good example
If you spend an hour scrolling through Facebook posts when you should be helping your children with their homework, your children will notice. That’s because children model the behaviors of their parents. A parent’s dos and don’ts with regard to social media usage will influence their children’s behavior. If you want your child to put away their phone at dinnertime, you need to do that, too.
Establish technology-free zones in the house and technology-free hours when no one, both parents and children, is allowed to use the phone or get on social media. There are times when you need to check your emails in the morning for work. Get up half an hour early and do it then. That way, when you and your children are getting ready for the day, you can give them your undivided attention.
Delay the use of social media
The professionals at Protect Young Eyes believe that the minimum age a child should start using social media is 13. First, most social media platforms require personal information in order to set up an account. The question you need to ask yourself is this: Is my child ready to handle all the pressures, emotions, and unforeseeable risks associated with social media? Donna Wick, EdD, founder of Mind-to Mind Parenting, compares social media usage to alcohol. “Try to get as far as you can without anything at all.” Don’t be afraid to postpone your child’s social media usage for as long as possible.
Encourage offline activities
Children don’t have to live a life unplugged, but there are real benefits to putting down the phone. They can join sports, pick up a musical instrument, read books, learn how to cook. When children engage in activities outside of social media, they develop communication skills, bolster their creativity, and promote mindfulness.
Social media is here to stay, but there are ways to encourage limited usage. There’s an app called Forest, which motivates children to stay off their phones. The app inspires children to grow a forest filled with trees. The longer they stay off, the more their forest grows. You can even have a family challenge to see whose forest grows the biggest.
Be social media savvy
Social media platforms are a part of your teenager’s life. If your child is on it, you should be, too. You need to learn about these platforms so you can understand what your child is doing online. By becoming familiar with these platforms, you can have an informed, meaningful conversation with your teen. Set up your own accounts on the platforms your children are on and follow them. Have access to their accounts, monitor any suspicious activity, and keep the lines of communication open.
Talk to your kids
Be aware of your children’s moods. We now know that social media can impact a child in many ways. If you see that your teen is upset after hanging up the phone, talk to them. If your children know that you understand the different platforms they’re using, they’re more apt to open up to you about any problems that arise. A reassuring finding from a CNN study showed that when parents were more involved in their children’s social media presence, their children were less likely to stay upset about something that happened online. Become a trusted source rather than a vehicle for punishment making it easier for you to know if your child needs help online and offline.
Don’t be afraid to seek professional help
Despite doing everything right when it comes to teaching their child about social media, your child may become addicted. A 2016 Common Sense Media Report found that 50% of teens said they feel addicted to their mobile devices, and 78% of teens check their devices at least once an hour. Although many teenagers sign on to at least one platform each day, social media addiction is characterized by excess usage of social media in order to feel good, a loss of friendships, a negative impact at school, a decrease in physical activity, and an inability to stop.
You can’t monitor your child’s social media activity 24/7, but by starting early, educating yourself, talking openly to your children, and staying involved in their digital world, you and your children can navigate safely through any online pitfalls you might encounter, and you can keep your children safe.
If you feel your child has been negatively impacted by social media, please reach out to us. At Wallace Family Therapy, we are trained to provide the most effective treatment that meets your specific needs and challenges. We’re here to help you.