Real Life vs. Social Media Life: How to Help Your Child

Mom and daughter look at social media on a smartphone.

In today’s social media heavy society, equipping your child with the skills to navigate life digitally can be equally as important as prepping them for life in the real world. Teaching them proper online etiquette, social responsibility and a healthy perspective can make a huge difference in whether social media is helpful or harmful.

If your child is requesting a social media account, or already has one, Jeff Kerber, Ph.D, UnityPoint Health, discusses social media advice for parents before they log-on next.

What Do Experts Say About Kids and Social Media?

Dr. Kerber says the effect social media has on a child depends largely on the child’s ability to self-regulate their emotions and the parent’s attentiveness.

“Depending on the child’s emotional competence — how will they deal if no one comments on their Instagram posts? — anyone under the age of 13 should not be allowed to access social media without supervision,” says Dr. Kerber.

In fact, there is no Facebook for kids under 12, as most social media policies list 13 years old as the minimum age to open an account.

Dr. Kerber says parents should also honestly evaluate the status of their relationship with their child before diving into the social media world to ensure a positive experience. Are they involved enough to notice when their child needs attention and monitor social media use? How do they model social media behavior? Are they more plugged into their phone than kids?

“We can’t prevent disappointments in our children’s social lives, but we can help them keep a healthy perspective,” Dr. Kerber says. “When kids are struggling with that, and they most always are, social media can make those distortions worse — quickly. The parent needs to ensure the child takes an emotional breath of fresh air often enough to keep a clear mind about how they feel about and see themselves and others. That requires a parent’s presence and focus as a social media life guard.”

Dr. Kerber offers some guiding principles for teaching kids about smart social media engagement that apply both offline and online.

  • Follow the golden rule. Treat others as you want to be treated. 
  • Teach kids to walk before they run. Kids struggle with relationships and the associated misunderstandings and bruised feelings. We shouldn’t expect a 12- or 13-year-old who can’t hold a 5-minute conversation with friends or adults to be skilled navigators of social media.
  • Social connection equals survival. Kids use social media to organize themselves both internally — how they see themselves — and externally — how they see themselves fitting in with others. Once they’ve experienced social media, it is very difficult for them to imagine a satisfying, safe and connected life without it. 

Is it OK for a Parent to Request Access to Their Child’s Social Media Account?

Dr. Kerber says yes — unapologetically. However, it’s important to build trust with your child as well. If there is no reasonable cause to monitor your kid’s social media activity, don’t. But there are social media safety tips for parents to keep in mind, such as being aware of any secret accounts — known as “finsta” (friends-only or “fake” Instagram) accounts for their closest friends. It’s a way for them to share a less-filtered version of their lives, and something to keep an eye on.

What’s an Appropriate Amount of Time Spent on Social Media for Your Child?

Dr. Kerber says if a child has other interests and naturally regulates their online time, then an arm’s-length approach may work just fine. If, however, they’re compulsively checking their feeds, a more structured approach to social media for kids is helpful.

“There are various studies that attempt to quantify healthy vs. unhealthy screen time. They eventually validate the common-sense wisdom of moderation. However, the more kids have their noses buried in a screen, the less engaged they become with the real world. There’s a general deterioration, or at least delay, that occurs in their attention span, ability to empathize and delay gratification,” he says.

“Kids also need to understand social cues that are often absent with online communication. Numerous studies have noted teens’ online communication is hyperaggressive and/or sexualized in ways it wouldn’t be during a face-to-face conversation,” Dr. Kerber says.

Dr. Kerber lists some signs to watch for that may signal social media is becoming a problem for your child, including:

  • Change in mood or interests (from what you usually expect)
  • Increased irritability
  • Social withdrawal or increased isolation
  • General loss of motivation
  • Performance drops in school or other activities
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Lower energy
  • Poor concentration in other tasks

If you notice any of these changes, Dr. Kerber suggests employing some of the following activities and strategies with your child:

  • Get active. Participate in playful, and even competitive, activities, music (not just Spotify) and art (the stuff that gets your hands dirty).
  • Watch the clock. Limit time to no more than two hours online a day.
  • Schedule face time. Structure human interaction opportunities, like meals with family or chores with siblings. Children need to deal with someone else’s agenda and cooperate.
  • Leave it behind. Put the phone in in the car glove compartment during outings.

Dr. Kerber says allowing your child to have a social media account needs to be an eyes-wide-open approach that addresses the bigger issues when sharing and consuming information.

“Parents must teach their children that social posts are available for others to use in any way they want — forever. Kids need to understand friendships change, and the ultra-private content shared with their bestie in sixth grade may haunt them in eighth. They need to know what they do online can have serious legal and financial consequences for their parents, and that kids sometimes hurt themselves because of interactions on social media.”

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