Six ways to help kids use social media in a healthy way

How to navigate the digital world

Gone are the days of teens cruising around town together on a Friday night. Social media is now the hippest hang-out spot, even those as young as elementary school age. Parenting this generation of digital kids means the need to know how to help them navigate social media in a healthy, positive and safe way.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, by age 13, more than 60 percent of kids have at least one account on social media. Also, on average, many children spend around two hours a day engaged with social media.

Social media offers kids a way to connect with friends and family all over the world, express themselves artistically and politically, and connect with peers who share their interests. But unmoderated, the American Academy of Pediatrics warns, these platforms come with serious mental health risks like depression, anxiety and distorted body image.

1. Ready-or not?

Most sites require that users are 13 or older. But according to Nominet, a safety advisory site, today nearly 60 percent of kids have joined a social media platform by age 10.

Research the different social media sites that your child wants to join and join them yourself to become familiar with the app’s privacy measures and messaging. Be aware that many of these platforms depict subject matter that your child may not be developmentally ready to handle.

2. Consider your child’s personality.

• Do they tend to be impulsive?
• Do they understand that nothing they post is private?
• Are they prepared to see friends enjoying a gathering or activity that they weren’t invited to?
• Are you willing to check in regularly and have discussions about smart online decisions?
• Will your child talk to you if they see or experience something that bothers or worries them?

3. Privacy setting.

Discuss privacy. Make sure privacy settings are in use and that your kids only “friend” people they know in real life. Watch for apps that don’t have strong privacy protections, and those that zero in on your geographic location, and those that open the door for strangers to message them.

Remind your kids not to post personal information like your home address. Inappropriate photos and posts disparaging a particular person can also become haunting reminders in the future. Anything sent through messaging apps or posted online can be shared outside their network. Before they post, encourage your kids to ask themselves: “Would I want Grandma to see this?”

Set up restrictions on your kids’ phones that require a parent to enter a password before they can download an app. This provides a chance to discuss specific apps and then decide together if it’s a good idea to download.

4. Define boundaries.

Remember when your parents said nothing good happens after midnight? Despite the fact that your child may be safely ensconced in their room, the same wisdom applies. Incidents of depression and anxiety increase with social media usage and the more time kids spend on social media, the more problems can arise from invasions of privacy and cyberbullying to sleep deprivation.

Establish family rules around when and where electronics are allowed in your home and how long each session of use can last. Involve your kids in the discussion. Be a role model for healthy electronics use and follow the rules you implement. Create a charging station where everyone’s devices are turned in by a particular time each evening to ensure quality sleep.

Talk about the reality behind picture perfect. “The emphasis on perfect selfies has amplified body image issues for girls,” writes Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., in her book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.

Girls are more likely to spend a painstaking amount of time taking hundreds of selfies in an attempt to get just the right one, in pursuit of likes, “but still often end up feeling as though they’ve fallen short,” Twenge explains.

Social media posts are simply snapshots of people’s more complex lives and it’s usually the carefully curated, positive sides of themselves that they choose to share.

5. Take digital breaks.

In addition to creating digital free spaces like the dinner table or the car, choose a day of the week when your family unplugs from social media and the online world. This is an opportunity to simply be in the present and pursue personal interests without worrying about the rest of the world, other than the people who matter most to you, your family, in the here and now.

6. Strike a balance.

Twenge explains that today’s teens spend about an hour less each day with friends in person than teens did five years ago.
Because the brain doesn’t respond to computer-mediated connection in the same way it responds to in-person interaction, individuals who spend more time engaged in onscreen activities are less likely to be happy and will also feel lonelier.

“There’s this important concept called limbic resonance,” says psychotherapist Dr. Hilarie Cash, the chief clinical officer for reSTART Life, a treatment program specializing in internet and video game addiction. “When you’re in the presence of someone you feel safe with the brain releases a whole bouquet of neurochemicals that keep each of us in the relationship feeling well emotionally and physiologically. Screen-mediated relationships don’t produce those same effects.”

Encourage school and extracurricular involvement. Help your child discover activities that give them a sense of purpose, personal satisfaction and self-confidence. Children develop friendships around shared interests and gain essential social skills while interacting with peers. And when they do go online, they’ll be aware that social media is meant to complement their social life, not replace it.

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