Five young adults smiling for a selfie

Raising healthy kids in a digital world

Posted on by Nicole Reeve-Parker. This entry was posted in Life Events and Changes. Bookmark the permalink.

As a tween or teen, it can be difficult to navigate the complexities of social media. These strategies can empower parents and caregivers to create a realistic plan for their family’s screen use.

Parents and caregivers of tweens and teens can’t fail to have seen—probably on social media—a recent report from the U.S. Surgeon General about the “profound risk of harm” to adolescents’ mental health and well-being caused by excessive use of social media.

“Parents tell me they watch their children retreat to their bedrooms and spend hours alone with their screens,” wrote the Surgeon General in the Washington Post, “exposed to an endless feed of flawless bodies and unrealistic ideals.”

The report substantiates what many researchers, doctors, parents and lawmakers have long suspected about social media use in youths, elevating the conversation of how to address the issue to the national level.

And it is indeed an issue: a 2022 Pew Research survey found that 95 percent of teens said they had daily access to a smartphone, while 35 percent said they were using at least one of the top five social media platforms (YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook) “almost constantly.”

According to Screen Sanity, a national nonprofit focused on digital health for youth, 80% of teens check their phones throughout the night and respond to every notification.

That’s a lot of lost sleep.

Clinical diagnoses and self-reporting among adolescents of anxiety and depression, along with emergency room visits for self-harm and suicidal ideation, have risen in recent years in a seemingly parallel pattern with increasingly prevalent use of social media.

But the correlation between social media use and increasing rates of distress among young people is unclear.

Recent research considering the connection between social media and youth well-being has been consistently inconclusive, demonstrating both a positive and a negative effect: while excessive screen time of any kind disrupts sleep and can supplant activities like exercise, reading and other hobbies, social media use has allowed countless youths to connect with a community and express themselves.

There is a correlation between time spent on social media or in online gaming and monetary cost as well. Alexis Hiniker, associate professor at the UW Information School, has researched the prevalence in apps and games of “dark patterns”, interactive designs deployed in the ‘attention economy’ that encourage longer gameplay or reengagement with gameplay, ad viewing and making in-app purchases.

For kids who are still developing their digital critical thinking skills, coercive dark pattern design can result in hundreds of dollars spent on in-app purchases.

Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association issued its first-ever social media guidance recommendations, suggesting that parents and caregivers keep careful tabs on kids’ usage. The APA also suggested that tech companies producing apps like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat reconsider features like endless scrolling and the “like” button.

What can we do to help our kids have a healthier relationship with screens and social media?

Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a leading child development expert and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s, has said that screen time isn’t all inherently bad, and might even have some educational benefit for kids—as long as parents and caregivers are engaged in the curation and management of the content being consumed.

While this is particularly true for parents and caregivers of young children, engagement also goes a long way with tweens and teens.

Dr. Christakis suggests taking a highly active role in children’s media education by co-viewing programs with them and talking about them afterward—what was new, exciting or funny.

With older kids, playing video games with them and sharing fun and engaging apps and social media sites together—helping them to curate their feeds—goes a long way toward a healthier approach to its use.

It’s never a bad idea to remind kids that social media is a highlight reel

Of course, not all screen time is created equal. An hour spent watching a Minecraft gamer setting TNT on his opponent’s build, for example, is not equivalent to an hour spent video chatting with grandparents.

And for older kids, video chatting and text have become the standard means of socializing—so does that count as screen time?

“A lot of preteens and older adolescents do their socializing via screens,” Dr. Christakis said. “Texting and video chats have displaced talking on the phone, so I wouldn’t necessarily count that as screen time.”

Nonetheless, time spent socializing via a device is time not spent in healthy, face-to-face interactions developing real-life relationships—an essential skill for young adults.

Getting kids started with social media

For parents or caregivers considering when to allow their kids to begin using social media, note that the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act prohibits companies from collecting data online from children under 13. Consequently, social media companies prohibit children under 13 from creating their own accounts.

Of course, the 12-and-under set can easily evade this rule by lying about their birth year—so it really is incumbent upon parents to help their kids navigate social media in positive ways.

Social media expert Devorah Heitner, author of “Growing up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World,” offers the following strategies in setting the ground rules for social media use for kids:

  • Create a family media plan to set expectations and check in with that plan regularly. Check out a sample “Media Time Family Pledge” for online media use.
  • Start slow: add new apps one at a time and give kids time to get the hang of how to use them and determine whether the app is a good fit for their personality and temperament.
  • Keep mealtimes and in-person gatherings free of devices to promote family bonding, meaningful conversations and authentic engagement.
  • Set time limits: when kids first get their own device, or first start using social media apps, don’t give them 24/7 access to it. Experts strongly discourage allowing devices in the bedroom at night, or phones used as alarm clocks—too much temptation.
    • You can set a limit via your own phone — on Apple look for the Family Sharing settings and on Android you can use an app called Family Link.
  • Prevent unwanted downloads with an Ask to Buy setting on Apple phones that will send a request to the parent when kids want to buy or download a new item.
  • Help your teen understand and curate their feed by encouraging them to like and follow a diverse group of role models—peers, celebrities doing good works, athletes encouraging positive change in the world.
  • Talk to your kids about who they follow and why and share the same about your own social media accounts. Be sure they understand your boundaries around content and how—and why—to keep their personal information private.
  • Define “sexting” to kids of all ages and make sure they know that it is never ok to send or receive pictures of people without clothing, whether they know the person or not.
  • Resist the urge to take away their device or access to social media if they post something you don’t like, which can backfire if kids go “underground”. Instead, talk with them about deleting a poorly planned post and repairing any damaged relationships.
  • For younger children, consider Pinwheel, a smartphone with multiple built-in parental controls, including the ability to monitor your child’s communications.

Helping teens wean off social media

What if your tween or teen already has a device and access to social media—and is one of the 35% checking apps “almost constantly” and suffering the negative mental and physical health consequences of it?

Much media coverage has been allotted to “tech’s toxic effect” on self-esteem—particularly for girls. Considerably less media suggest how parents and caregivers can help kids wean themselves off or cut back on social media—especially when social media platforms and apps are designed to be both addictive and deceptive.

Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University who has extensively researched the effect of social media on teens’ mental health, has some suggestions for helping them cut back:

Set boundaries collaboratively by asking your child what kinds of changes feel manageable, such as cutting down on the number of apps available or limiting overall social media time. Consider using the American Academy of Pediatrics’ free tool for creating a family media plan.

Suggest a social media vacation: a day, a week, a month—any time off from social media can be beneficial to teens. Expect pushback, and be prepared to offer alternatives for the time they would have spent scrolling: a family outing, such as a special shopping trip or visit to a theme park or family fun center, might be just the thing.

Stay firm on your own rules around the amount of screen time teens are allowed, keeping screens out of the bedroom at night and turned off during mealtimes. Like any aspect of parenting, consistency is key.

Additional resources

Bright Horizons + Screen Sanity: UW WorkLife’s employee backup care provider, Bright Horizons, has partnered with Screen Sanity to offer a comprehensive webinar, Improving your family’s digital wellness, to empower parents and caregivers  to create a plan for their family’s screen use, introducing kids to smartphones and safely introducing social media.

Register for the next Bright Horizons digital wellness webinar Oct. 24 at 10 a.m.

Looking for additional support navigating screens or social media with your family? UW’s employee assistance program, Washington EAP, has a variety of resources available to parents and caregivers, including parenting articles, webinars and counseling (available for both parents and caregivers and children).