Nearly everyone is connected to social media, whether to reach out to old friends or to stay in constant contact with new ones. For the past few years, researchers have been trying to figure out what impact that screen time is having on wellbeing, whether for our bodies or our minds.
After one such study from the University of Michigan suggested Facebook may hurt our moods, even the New Yorker covered the topic, penning the article “How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy”. But as doctors already know, and the article noted, such comparisons are too simple.
As a parent, you want to keep your child happy, and even the suggestion that social media might lead to depression or anxiety is enough to make you consider banning it altogether. However, a social media ban would not only lead to a battle of wills for the ages, but it would remove your child from the benefits that appropriate online social engagement can bring.
There is no need to keep your child off of Facebook, SnapChat or Instagram. Instead, as a family you can work together to find the right balance between life online and the life in front of you, and that will help everyone feel better.
Cause and effects
It seems like ages ago, but screen time used to mean television. For decades, that device has had doctors and psychologists launching countless studies on the negative impact of sedentary TV-watching on kids’ happiness and health.
Recent studies suggest digital media can have a similar effect – any time you’re looking at a screen, you’re obviously not moving around. Too much screen time can lead to obesity, sleep problems, and negative effects on school performance, with social media bringing new risks, such as from sexting and cyberbullying. All of those challenges can make kids, or any of us, unhappy.
Social media does connect us to other people, and it can also be a tool to help kids learn to identify red flags, and danger, in social interactions. However, parents should be involved from their child’s earliest interactions to prevent later problems.
Many signs for too much screen time are similar to depression. Maybe your teenager’s just not acting like herself, or doesn’t seem to enjoy the things she used to, and seems more withdrawn. Social anxiety can also trigger angst in ways other media cannot. For example, your child may see a photo of friends together on Instagram and realize she was left out of the event. Her absence may have had nothing to do with her, but it will still have an effect. Such behaviors are warnings for parents, and should prompt a discussion with your child – and that’s a good thing.
There is no “one-size-fits-all” recommendation for social media use, so a parent’s engagement is absolutely necessary. As a pediatrician at Orlando Health, I encourage parents to become actively involved in the media their children and teenagers consume, and to consider ways social media can help prevent isolation. But that must be balanced with maintaining physical activity and having face-to-face contact with other people. The key will always be parental involvement and open communication.
Another opportunity to be the parent
Part of keeping our children safe from social-media depression and anxiety is teaching them to be good digital citizens online and then setting that example. Just like we parent them to look both ways before crossing the street, or to always wear a seatbelt, social media is just another skill parents in 2017 have to learn.
Consider the various flavors of media as either consumptive or creative and be alert to signs of trouble. Is your child passively watching a movie, or is she actually creating something? As your child connects to other people with similar interests, is she connecting to some of the “wrong” people, those who cause harm or criticize her? Does your child know that sending, receiving, or even simply forwarding private images, especially in various stages of undress, will be linked to her for the rest of her life? That last element, in particular, is not one most of us had to deal with when we were younger.
Your kids should know that if they’re going to be on a social platform, then you’re going to be on it, too. If they are thinking about posting something they don’t want you or another family member to see, then it’s probably not something for the internet to consume, either.
Your pediatrician can help you navigate all of those challenges, guided by the latest American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Recommendations for Children’s Media Use that came out in October. A core focus is parental involvement, and working as a family to develop a Family Media Plan. That plan, one of several AAP tools on healthychildren.org, takes into consideration the differences of every family, and allows your family to work as a team to develop house rules.
Once you start, stay on track
Once your plan is in place, there are a number of ways to keep it on track. Most important is show that you can also follow the rules, even if they’re a little different from those set for your kids.
That can be hard to do. When an alert or call comes in, we all feel the need to respond right away. But recognize we all need time away from distraction. Even more important, if your child wants your attention—whether to play or to chat, perhaps opening up about something troubling—you need to put down your phone or tablet and engage. Otherwise, you may lose an important opportunity to strengthen your relationship.
Typically, for my patients at Orlando Health, I recommend three times to put the devices down: mealtime, playtime/activities, and bedtime. Mealtime even has its own campaign, #DeviceFreeDinner. One way to do this is have everybody’s smart phones and tablets plugged into a single charging station, away from the table, so the family can sit down for face-to-face contact.
Your kids may balk at new rules, whining with boredom, but as the parent, you have to set firm limits. Eventually they’ll figure out how to manage. Boredom can be good, giving many kids the option to be creative. That happens in my house, when I tell my kids they’ve had too much screen time and they need to go upstairs and do something else. They may grumble a little bit, but five minutes later I check in on them and they’ve figured it out, building a huge fort out of the couch cushions or creating a new game with unique rules I usually don’t understand.
At the core of social media use is understanding that it should never take the place of the important activities of daily life. There will always be chores, and homework, and practice, but there is also downtime, and it should not be dominated by screens, and the potential social stresses they can provide.
That downtime can be a great opportunity for you and your child to connect. This is another way to learn about the people on the other end of social media, the friends who are important in your child’s life, and a chance to pick up on any sadness that may have crept in, no matter the source.
Jean Siri Moorjani, MD, graduated magna cum laude from Virginia Commonwealth University with a B.S. in biology, followed by a medical degree from VCU School of Medicine. She completed a three-year pediatric residency at the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, where she later joined the Medical Education Pediatric Faculty Practice.