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Parent’s Guide to Social Media Use for Kids

Even though they’re no longer a couple, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie both recently confirmed they put safety measures on the Internet to provide boundaries for their children. They definitely plan to keep watch on their social media use as they age. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently suggested he wouldn’t want his nephew on a social network. Years ago, Apple Founder Steve Jobs said he didn’t want his kids to even own an iPad. Why? It’s simple. Children’s health experts warned (on Facebook) that excessive use of digital devices and social media “is harmful to children and teens.”

I meet faculty and parents frequently who are sharing these concerns and asking the same questions about social media use. I realize I’ve written much about this in the past, but maybe a short Q and A guide, based on research, would be helpful here.

photo credit: Simon Blackley Friends via photopin (license)

1. How much is too much social media use?

One study by UNICEF, reports that “some time on social media is actually good” and that “digital technology seems to be beneficial for children’s social relationships.” On social media we can connect with friends, give to charities and be informed of what’s happening around the world. With too much time, however, screens can become damaging to our mental health. The key is to separate understandable concerns with actual data on the subject.

Believe it or not, the average teen today spends about 9 hours a day on a screen. That’s like a full-time job. According to Monitoring the Future, just two hours on social media has been shown to contribute to anxiety and unhappiness among teens. I suggest, a 60-90 minute limit each day. The other hours should be filled with face-to-face hours with friends, sports, work, activities, studies and family. This ratio has been shown to produce happier kids and better students. Further, it results in more satisfied young adults. I recognize this will be a major shift for some teens—so if you choose to do this, start with a conversation about making a slow steady change.

2. Should we monitor our kids’ social media use? If so, how?

Parents differ on their opinions about whether to check what their kids are doing on social media sites. Some believe their children deserve privacy and should not worry about mom or dad checking on them. I differ, only because I’ve seen too many case studies of kids not being fully aware of the dangers of predators, mental health issues and even cyber-bullies who hide behind a screen to wreak havoc on peers. What’s more, teens receive propositions from adults with wrong intentions and from others who engage in sexting. The teens in our focus groups told us boldly, “My parents have no idea what my life is like at night and what I do on social media.” This suggests to me that they’re up to something their parents may not support. The statistics reveal that 71% of teens admit to hiding on-line activities from their parents. As long as they are minors, I believe it’s wise for parents or guardians to check their children’s social media posts.

So, here are some apps you can explore to monitor your teen’s activity on a phone:

1. Norton

This allows you to set phone time limits and filter web content coming in.

2. TeenSafe

This allows you to track your child’s calls, texts, GPS and social media activity.

3. MobSafetyRangerBrowser

This enables you to view your child’s website browsing and set time limits.

4. PhoneSheriff

This enables you to do all of the above, but it is available for fewer devices.

5. DinnerTime

This allows you to limit phone Internet use during family meals.

6. Qustodio

This allows you to track and set a phone curfew where phones shut down.

There are actually several other apps that empower a parent to know what’s happening on their child’s phone. While they are minors, I think you should know.

One other idea might be for parents encourage their children to use privacy settings to ensure their posts are going out to a select set of friends.

3. What are some symptoms that a student needs to cut back on social media?

According to Common Sense Media, 50% of teens say they are addicted to their cell phone. While CSM concludes more study is needed to determine how deep digital addiction is, teens feel the symptoms and consequences of it. It’s a growing issue in middle class America. Two-thirds of parents, 66%, feel their teens spend too much time on their mobile device. Phones have now replaced teens hanging out at the mall or at the movies. It’s a new day.

There are a number of signals a young person naturally sends that they’ve spent too much time on social media platforms or on their mobile device in general:

  • Withdrawing from face-to-face social interaction.
  • Consistent anxiety, stress or feeling overwhelmed by normal routines.
  • Grades begin to slip and assignments reflect poor work or are left undone.
  • Avoidance of real life responsibilities, such as chores or homework.
  • Ill at ease, ill-equipped or unresponsive to people in front of them.
  • Phubbing—teens snub people next to them by looking down at their phone.
  • Phones begin to create conflict in their closest relationships.

A few years ago, I suggested a group of college students “surrender their phones” for a day. It was an experiment. What did we all discover? The first two hours were horrific, not unlike a drug addict giving up their drugs, cold turkey. After a couple of hours, however, the day began to feel less stressful. The students felt liberated from the tether of their device. By the day’s end, they told me how nice it was to not be enslaved to that phone and that they wanted to “unplug” on a regular basis.

4. How do I handle arguments about their portable device?

Millions of parents have walked into landmines, as they disagree with their child on any number of mobile phone use or social media sites. Emotional debates occur, which can divide parents and kids and lead to a breakdown in communication.

I have a suggestion that has worked for many parents along the way. It’s a step that not only guides the conversations on this topic but prepares teens for the world they are about to mature into as adults: a contract.

In 2013, I posted an article on our blog page about a “phone contract” between a mom and her child. The mother had purchased her daughter’s phone (as is usually the case) and the agreement enabled her (from the beginning) to outline the terms. In it, she basically reminds her child that Mom bought the phone and, therefore, owns the phone. Any time the child violates the agreement, the child must give up the device for a period of time. This is not unlike a contract a customer might enter with AT&T or Sprint or some other carrier. The difference is, this agreement is laced with love and understanding. If a parent hosts a conversation and lays out the terms before purchasing the device, things generally go better. Both parties agree to it and sign it. The key is that the parent must stick to the terms and enforce them.

5. Should we be friends with our children on social media?

This probably depends on the personality and age of your child. Some parents and kids connect well via smart phone and others do not. According to Pew Research:

  • 53% are friends with their parents. This tends to work better when the child is between 12-14. By ages 15-21 it often feels “smothering” to them. Then, later as a young adult, it seems to feel OK again to them.
  • 47% are friends with their children on Facebook. This feels nice to the parent but it’s usually the reason many teens get off Facebook and on to other sites.
  • 41% are connected with people they have never met in person. Teens do this because it feels adventuresome, yet safe. After all, it’s only a screen. Later, however, it often leads to LMIRL: Let’s Meet In Real Life and can be dangerous.

Whatever the case, most parents can bank on one thing for sure: your child may befriend you on a social media site like Facebook or Instagram, but they likely have platforms where they use false identities you know nothing about. A parent may assume they know all about their teens, but would be shocked if they knew the total amount of personas their children actually use.

For example, consider “Finsta.” This is a fake Instagram persona, where teens can create a totally fraudulent identity and post things you may never know about. They might have five Snapchat accounts. Or, several Twitter accounts. Just know that if you and your child connect on one platform, that doesn’t mean it’s the only one they use. It may be helpful to talk about this with them, or even talk to one of their friends to naturally discover if there are any personas you don’t know about.

I may sound like an “old school” leader who’s just not up with the times. I contend, however, our kids need good leadership from us. Their phones can be helpful rather than damaging if we lead them intentionally.

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  1. Lorena Wood on March 13, 2018 at 2:41 pm

    Great article and links. Here is what we did. Our daughter did not have a phone until she met certain criteria such as doing her chores, loosing weight (set amount), being respectful and a few others. She had to buy her own phone so she worked her but off and learned budgeting skills and the pain of all her friends having phones but not her. She was finally “approved” to buy her phone at age 15. She has to pay the monthly bill herself and any repairs. So shortly after she got it she was messing around with a friend and cracked the screen. It cost her nearly half of the price of her phone (repair bill was $400). We told her we would upfront the money this time but she would have to pay us back and if it wasn’t paid back with in a certain amount of time she would be charged 10%. She has about $100 left and has paid about $38 in interest. She knows the pain of debt and learning responsibility. We can take the phone away from her at any point, because we ARE the PARENTS. She has lost it several times. But better she learns now under our roof than out in the world. She sees the advance of all our decisions and sees how her friends parents are not really being parents but “friends” with their kids and the pain that entails.

  2. Rob Cooksey on March 17, 2018 at 6:59 am

    Unfortunately, Phone Sheriff is no longer in business – thanks to hackers. They are offering pro-rated refunds to subscribers.

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