As a parent, setting healthy social media boundaries for your children can make a significant difference in their emotional health, school performance, development and more.
Social media, like just about anything else, can be both good and bad. For teens, it can be good--a way to maintain connections, build a sense of self, engage in community, and learn about topics that interest them. But I also see many negative outcomes of social media when it’s not used wisely: bullying, extensive distraction, severe feelings of insecurity or inadequacy, early exposure to sexual themes and even becoming a victim of a crime.
As a counselor, I’ve seen a lot of problems that start or worsen with social media. As a father to two daughters (teens/20s), I know the challenges of being a parent today, and how boundaries can be hard to set—but nevertheless are still critical for protecting your children.
Straightforward Boundaries – Time and Age
One or two hours. That’s how much time the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children and teens should engage with entertainment media via electronic screens. So all television shows, social media, video games, etc. should be consumed for a very small amount of time each day—and it should be high-quality content that is age-appropriate.
Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity. In addition, the internet, mobile phones, social media, etc. can provide platforms for illicit and risky behaviors.
If you set this time limit boundary in your family, you’re already off to a great start.
The other boundary to set is age. Did you know that the recommended/legal minimum age for use of a social media website is age 13? This is the age set by Congress, in the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)? This act prohibits web sites from collecting information on children younger than 13 years without parental permission. Also, the official terms of service for many popular sites, like Facebook, now mirror the COPPA regulations and state that 13 years is the minimum age to sign up and have a profile.
You may think that setting this minimum age boundary is surprising, or even unrealistic. But as a counselor, I can tell you that it’s a great boundary to set. I can also tell you that other counselors, pediatricians and other child experts agree.
Parental Supervision and Access
I know of parents who have a “full access” rule when it comes to social media. Their children must give them the passwords to every account, and that no “side” accounts are allowed.
This can offer many benefits. First and foremost, it can help keep your child safe. (And even children and teens who complain about this will usually admit that it does help them feel safer and more cared about.) One of the riskiest effects [of unsupervised social media use] is relationships with adults much older who may be predators.
Parental supervision can also help prevent or address cyberbullying--if your child is being bullied, or if you see your child mistreating someone online as well. If ‘sexting’ or other inappropriate sexual content is being exchanged, you’ll know about it. You can also monitor what types of connection requests your child receives. Basically, you can be in the know about what messages are coming to and from your child.
If you see this as a violation of their privacy, give it some reconsideration. In the same way most parents would want to monitor who comes in and out of their home, this is a similar guideline.
Understanding Your “Digital Footprint”
No matter what your privacy settings may say, once something is online it can be impossible to make it go away. “What goes online stays online.” Also, wherever you go online, you can leave traces behind.
Teens who lack an awareness of privacy issues--and maturity to understand long-term ramifications--often post inappropriate photos, videos and other material without understanding that it may never fully go away. Depending on the nature of the posts, this can affect future college and career plans.
Also, kids and teens who share too much personal information can make themselves a target for fraud, theft or worse. In this day and age, it’s not hard to find out where someone lives once you know their last name and where they go to high school, for example.
Like anything, our brains tend to work better after being allowed to shut down, rest and reset. By feeling constantly connected, our ability to relax and unwind fully, and have our thoughts to ourselves, is significantly impacted.Consider having some designated “no social media” times in your family, whether it’s dinner time, a couple of hours every evening, whenever you’re on vacation, etc.
Incidentally, this guideline is great for adults too!
Putting Social Media In Its Place
I now want to share a few thoughts that can help put social media into its proper context. •What’s happening online isn’t real, in the sense that life is what’s actually happening all around you. Relationships with family and friends; activities such as sports, music or theatre; meaningful work; learning life skills; and volunteering all make up a rich, fulfilling life. Primarily focusing on these aspects of real life will lead to greater happiness—both now and long-term.
- When people are posting on social media, they’re often posting their “highlight reel,” which can make you think that everyone has a better life than you do.
- Be a good example for your children. Limit your own time with screens and demonstrate other meaningful and productive ways to spend time and live life.
- No one has ever looked back at any point in their life and thought, “Wow. I wish I’d spent more time on Facebook/Snapchat/Instagram/Twitter/Pinterest."
Here are some excellent links/resources that can help your whole family manage social media and screen time together.
- Earlier this year, PBS did an interview about “Screenagers,” a documentary that explores why young people are so drawn to social media and video games, and what effect it’s having on their brains. Drug Like Effect of Screen Time on the Teenage Brain
- The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is a wealth of information on this topic. Here are several excellent links.
- 10 Tips for Parents in the Digital Age. It covers topics including setting limits, being a good role model, creating tech free zones (including leaving the phone in a common area at bedtime!), and more.
- “The AAP Clinical Report: The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families” can be found here. It includes valuable research about both the benefits and harms of social media, as well as how to help your family navigate social media together.
If you are concerned about the emotional or mental health of your child, including issues related to social media use or relationships, Deaconess Cross Pointe offers individual outpatient counseling for all ages. More information.