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Parenting in the Age of Social Media and Screentime

by Caraline McDonnell, BA

We know that social media and screentime can make an impact on our children’s metal health and safety, both positively and negatively. As caregivers looking out for the children and teens in our lives, it is important to identify ways to protect our children from the negative impacts of social media and screentime. Nearly 70% of parents endorse that parenting is more difficult now than it was 20 years ago, primarily because of social media and technology. While the hard work of protecting children from the harms of technology should not fall solely on parents, here are the things that we can do within our scope of control.

Talk openly with kids and teens about the benefits and risks of using social media

  1. Take the time to teach them strategies for staying safe and responsible with social media and create the space for an open dialogue about what they see online.
  2. Show them how to keep accounts private and discuss why it is important to only connect with people they know well on social media sites.
  3. Discuss how posts online become permanent. Encourage your kids and teens to only post and engage with content that they would feel proud of.
  4. Make it clear that you are a safe person to go to if they ever come across inappropriate content, or cyberbullying. Feeling comfortable with an adult and having that open dialogue may encourage them to share when they have negative experiences online, and it will allow you to guide them through those challenging moments.
  5. Connect with your child about their current social media accounts, and make sure to have all updated log in information. Following your kids on social media, or having access to their account, can help you to stay in touch with what they are posting and seeing so that you can be proactive about any issues that may come up.

Model the behavior that you'd like to see

Kids and teens often learn behaviors from those around them, including family members. You can help guide their own habits by taking control of yours. By setting a good example for engaging with social media and screentime, and talking about it openly, you can encourage them to use it in the same way. You can do this by limiting your own social media use, being mindful of what you post and when, and following the same guidelines for use that you would like them to follow.

Encourage appropriate and active engagement

To support your kids and teens in getting the most benefit out of their social media and technology use, encourage them to spend their time engaging with content that provides either educational or creative value. Help them to identify their interests and find accounts or sites that promote these interests in a positive way. Research has also found that people who engage with social media in a more active manner, by posting or creating things, may get more benefit than those who passively scroll. This could be a great outlet for creative or academic pursuits and talents.

Create “tech-free” zones

Screentime and social media can interfere with sleep, and with in-person socializing, so creating clear boundaries on when electronic use is appropriate may be helpful to set limits in these areas. For example, create a plan to collect devices an hour before bedtime and before mealtimes with family or friends. Then, show your child that you’re in it together by refraining from using your own devices during these times too.

Create a family media plan

In the spirit of open communication and healthy modeling, normalize boundaries with technology by creating a plan that the whole family agrees to follow. Creating this plan together can help begin the dialogue about screentime, appropriate content, and privacy concerns. Click here for a useful template to start yours.

  1. Creating a plan around social media and screentime use can help your child to understand that using social media or having screentime is a privilege and not a right. Set clear expectations with your child that if the family media plan is not followed, the consequence will be time away from social media and screen time.

Use the allure of social media and screentime to your benefit

You can use your child’s motivation for screentime to encourage other behaviors you want to see in the home. If you set up a clear “chore and reward” chart, with screentime as the reward, you may find it easier to get compliance at home. Be careful to set clear expectations. For example, use phrases like “If you put all your clothes in the hamper before dinner, you will earn 10 minutes of time on the iPad,” instead of “If you clean before dinner, you will get to use the iPad.”

Follow the recommendations for screentime use by age, provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics

  1. For children younger than 18 months, avoid screentime entirely, other than video-chatting with family.
  2. For children 18-24 months, watch only age-appropriate programming, and engage with your child while watching to help them understand what they are seeing.
  3. For children ages 2-5 years, limit screentime to 1 hour per day, and continue to co-view high quality programming.

The world, and our ties to technology, are constantly changing and evolving. While more research needs to be done to fully understand the impact of social media and screentime on mental health, we can start supporting our kids by using the skills that we do know work. If you are struggling to set boundaries and limitations on screentime and social media use with your children, do not hesitate to consult a mental health professional. Some evidence-based therapeutic practices that have been found to be effective in setting limits and encouraging positive behaviors, like Behavioral Parent Training, may be a good resource for your family.

Want to learn more?

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Hmidan, A., Seguin, D. & Duerden, E.G. Media screen time use and mental health in school aged children during the pandemic. BMC Psychol 11, 202 (2023). 
How to make a family media use plan. (n.d.). 
Nesi, J., Mann, S. and Robb, M. B. (2023). Teens and mental health: How girls really feel about social media. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense. Retrieved from https://www. how-girls-really-feel-about-social-media-researchreport_ final_1.pdf 
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