Last year at about this time I wrote an article entitled “Does Your Phone Have a Bedtime?” It was about the importance of monitoring and actively limiting our children’s use of smartphones. Even more has been discovered and published on this topic since then, especially regarding the use of social media. Most of the studies have looked at young adults, but the findings are likely applicable to both the younger and older generations as well. Social media use is an area in which we can often see the problems in our children, but are blind to them in ourselves.
I’ve long called apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, etc., “antisocial media.” I believe the term “social media” to be an intentional misnomer invented by the developers of these platforms. More and more, it seems like the real intent of social media outlets is to create digital dependence or addiction. The literature is now bearing this out. Some argue that they can be used to keep in touch with family members and connect with friends. But is that really keeping in touch and connecting? I would argue that social media use is an isolating experience, typically done alone, and does not generally create any meaningful interpersonal interaction, in and of itself.
It may be helpful to look more closely at the word “social” in order to make my point. Here are several definitions from Dictionary.com: (and, yes, I first looked these up on my phone)
1. relating to, devoted to, or characterized by friendly companionship or relations: a social club.
2. seeking or enjoying the companionship of others; friendly; sociable; gregarious.
3. of, relating to, connected with, or suited to polite or fashionable society: a social event.
4. living or disposed to live in companionship with others or in a community, rather than in isolation: People are social beings.
5. involved in many social activities.
Does social media use actually do anything that meets the definition of social?
Let’s examine what happens when you use social media. You pull up an app, typically on a smartphone, and scroll through numerous posts from various people, companies, institutions, and virtually all kinds of entities. You read words and look at pictures. You may like or even reply to some. The person or entity who posted may or may not see or acknowledge your reply. You may learn something through the posts, but who knows if the information presented is useful, meaningful, or even truthful? Has any real interpersonal interaction taken place? Has any connection been made? Has there been companionship? Can the most basic definition of the word social apply – the presence of more than one person?
The literature bears out that rather than creating a sense of camaraderie and connectedness, social media use tends to create a false impression of what other people’s lives are like. It often creates and/or worsens the fear of missing out (FOMO) from which most young people suffer to begin with. It also tends to create feelings of isolation, loneliness, depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. The effect has been found to be proportional to the amount of social media use in which one engages. It is the feeling of some experts that the rise in suicidal ideation and other self harming behaviors is due, at least in part, to the increasing prevalence of social media use in teens and young adults.
So what is to be done? I’m not advocating the puritanical approach to social media use, namely “because it can be bad, it’s all bad, and must be avoided entirely.” That is unrealistic for most teens, young adults, and even older adults at this point. Most of the guidelines and expert advice in this arena focus on two broad goals: 1) Create responsible and appropriately limited patterns of social media use; 2) Create opportunities for social interactions among families and friends. The following is far from a comprehensive list, but hopefully these ideas will be helpful with regard to not only our children’s use of social media, but also our own:
Create responsible and appropriately limited patterns of social media use
Set appropriate limits
The amount of time spent on social media is important, but the frequency with which we check social media may be an even more sensitive indicator of how dependent we are. One study indicated that young adults who used social media, even briefly, dozens of times per day, tended to feel more loneliness, anxiety, and depression. It’s a good idea to limit both total time spent in social media use and the frequency of use. Twice a day may be a reasonable frequency, once in the morning and once in the evening. And remember, the rule of “no screens in the bedroom” applies to pocket screens as well.
Don’t allow children to start too early
While there is no consensus on the minimum age to allow use of social media, many experts suggest that at least 13 years of age makes sense. Others feel that 15-16 may be even more reasonable, due to the added maturity and sense of responsibility at those ages. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine a grade schooler being able to appropriately handle a smartphone, let alone social media. And there’s certainly no need for it at that age.
Use privacy settings and filters
While these are far from foolproof, they can certainly help to protect our children from some of the unsavory and even predatory influences they may encounter online. All accounts should be private, to the extent possible, and personal information such as addresses should never find its way onto social media platforms.
Be a friend and follower
This is a great way to keep track of our children’s social media use. And it will often affect what they post and type, knowing that mom and dad are going to see it too. If your teen refuses to friend or allow you to follow them, that should be the end of their social media use. There should be no compromise on this one.
Teach respect for others (and self)
Discuss with your children the importance of being kind and respectful to others, including online. Sometimes the appearance of anonymity, or the fact that the person being addressed is not physically present, emboldens the user of social media. A good rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t say it out loud or to someone’s face, don’t text, tweet, post, or snap it.
Those physically present are more important than anyone on social media
There are many stories of young people sitting in a room together, each on his or her phone, and not interacting at all with each other. In essence, they’re alone together. No wonder feelings of loneliness can result from too much or too frequent social media use. We must emphasize the fact that part of common courtesy is engaging with those in our physical presence, and paying more attention to them than to the latest post or snap. Are we ever guilty of breaking this rule? That question is worth some thought.
Lead by example
As in most aspects of parenting, the attitude of “Do as I say, not as I do” will not have the desired effect when it comes to social media use. If we, as parents, are consumed by our use of social media, or even frequently distracted by it, at the expense of more important responsibilities, then why would we expect any better from our children?
Create opportunities for social interactions among family members and friends
Spend time together
Despite the busy nature of modern life, we must carve out time for meaningful social interaction. Whether it’s walking, playing games, golfing, hiking, camping, sports, or just riding together in the car, many activities lend themselves to conversations with our children. Most of us can do far better in our efforts to schedule the activities which help us to interact and connect.
Return to the family table
For years now, many experts have called for a return to the family table. This is for a variety of reasons, but one of the more important ones is that it is often around the dinner table that we can feel a sense of connectedness, talk and laugh together, and meaningfully communicate about our lives. Social graces and good manners are also learned in this often neglected or overlooked setting. Whenever possible, eat dinner together as a family, and ensure that far more than just eating takes place as you do so.
Encourage in-person communication
With modern digital technology has come the ability to communicate with nearly anyone, anywhere, at any time, without ever saying a word. What an amazing thing! However, if that is the only way a young person communicates, he or she may not feel very comfortable talking with others, even peers. The important subtleties of nonverbal cues, facial expressions, eye contact, and tone of voice can only be mastered and understood through the practice of in person verbal communication. We must make sure our children are spending time with others, and actually talking together, not just playing on their phones.
Talk to them, and let them know you care
Consider the past 24 hours, and think of how much time you spent talking to your pre-teen or teenage son or daughter. Now think of how much time you spent on any type of social media or electronic device. Is there a problem? For most parents, the scales are tipped heavily in favor of the electronics. Granted, for many this is by necessity. But nearly all parents can determine to simply talk more to their children. This is a great way to show our love and caring concern for them, and that we’re interested in the details of their lives. At first, it may be like trying to draw water from a stone, and our efforts will be met with silence. But with persistent effort, the ultimate payoff will be well worth it. Remember, they won’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care. And they won’t know unless you tell them, with actual words, coming from your mouth.
Finally, there are numerous resources available to help in creating a family media plan, including rules about social media use. Some are listed below in the references, but there are many others. The first step may be to realize that there’s a potential problem, and that it may not be just with our children. Hopefully we can convey to our children the right messages and show them a good example regarding social media use, digital courtesy, and electronic responsibility in general. In the end, it will likely be the combination of what we say and what we do that will have the greatest impact on the next generation.
Richard Paxton, MD
Canyon View Pediatrics
“Problematic social media use and depressive symptoms among U.S. young adults: A nationally-representative study,” A. Shensa, et. al.
“Use of multiple social media platforms and symptoms of depression and anxiety: A nationally-representative study among U.S. young adults,” B. Primack, et. al.
“Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation among Young Adults in the U.S.,” B. Primack, et. al.