Parenting and Social Media

Teenagers are living their lives online; they spend a lot of their time on social media, posting updates, checking others’ updates, watching videos and shows, playing games, etc. Given that 75% of teens have profiles on social networking sites and that they value the social connections that social media provides, it is important for parents to be aware of the ways in which social media use may be affecting our children and how we can minimize potential risk.

First, research is starting to support parental fears that excessive use of social media can take a toll on how our children think and feel. Specifically, research has found a decrease in average attention span (from twelve to eight seconds) that seems to be related to an increase in screen use. Further, being on social media can be emotionally depleting and/or anxiety-provoking. For instance, the energy it takes to “keep up” on social media can contribute to fewer opportunities for self-reflection and self-care. In addition, individuals describe feeling anxious when their posts do not get “enough” positive responses, if the likes are not immediate, and/or if they feel like they are missing out. Second, social media is affecting our brain. In a recent study from UCLA, teenagers were shown pictures with a lot of “likes” and they found activation in the brain’s reward center (i.e., the same area that is active when we see pictures of a person we love or when we win money). The brain’s reward center was particularly active when teens saw a large number of likes on their own photos.

These interactions between social media and our children’s thoughts, feelings, and even brain activity may seem worrisome for parents but if we teach and monitor effectively, we can minimize those risks. First and foremost, with regard to parenting and social media, it is important for parents to realize that the “rules” of parenting are pretty much the same as they have always been. Our children need and expect limits and monitoring our children’s behavior, in both the real and virtual world, is critically important. Parents are encouraged to: 1) Have clear expectations/rules regarding use of technology and social media, 2) Set limits and consequences that are enforceable, 3) Monitor the kinds of sites your child is on and with whom they are communicating, and 4) Offer new levels of access over time as children demonstrate appropriate, responsible, and safe behaviors. Examples of important discussion points regarding social media use include: building a positive digital reputation, how/why to use privacy settings, and understanding that images have a life of their own.

We also need to teach our children, as well as model for them, how to responsibly use technology. Children ages 8 to 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours a day on electronic devices and 25% of teens reach for their phones within 5 minutes of waking up. Unfortunately, adults aren’t much better; the average adult checks his/her phone every 6.5 minutes. Therefore, it is very important for parents are encouraged to model what healthy usage looks like. Having technology-free zones in the house and technology-free hours is beneficial for everyone. It also is recommended that everyone power off all devices 30 minutes before bed and not turn them on until 30 minutes after waking up. In addition to minimizing adverse effects of social media exposure, spending less time on devices creates increased opportunities for valuable, in-person social interactions. According to a recent report by the AP and NORC at the University of Chicago, teens who took a voluntary break from social media felt positive about their time away and reported feeling relieved and glad that they had more time to do other things.

Whether we like it or not, technology and social media are here to stay. Thus, as with so many parenting dilemmas, the general takeaway regarding teens and social media seems to be: stay informed and aware, encourage moderation, foster real-life social interactions, and keep open lines of parent-child communication.

Kelly Theis, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist