Tips for Keeping Your Kids Safe on Social Media

Although I think the documentary The Social Dilemma is overly alarmist (as I’ve written elsewhere), it raises legitimate concerns about children’s use of social media. In one dramatized scene of the film, a girl posts a photo of herself to social media and someone makes fun of her “big ears,” leading to her crying in the bathroom. Social media use can lead to (or at least exacerbate) bullying, addiction, self-image problems, self-harm, and conspiracy mongering. What can parents do?

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt (who appears in the film) recommends three main steps for parents: Forbid all devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, forbid social media until high school, and limit total daily device use.

In the film, Haidt suggests talking with kids about their daily use. Haidt notes that, when asked, most kids will give a pretty reasonable answer for how much time they should be spending on their devices in a day—perhaps a couple of hours at most. The problem is that kids, like all of us, can lose track of time and end up totally surprised by how long we actually spend on social media. This is why talking about and enforcing daily limits can be a good idea.

In a Tweet thread (and related talk), Haidt offers some statistics to support his recommendations. He points to “the sudden and sharp rise of depression and self-harm among U.S. teens, especially girls, after 2011.” This is obviously concerning (even though longer-term trends show a decline in teen suicides in the years following the late 1980s prior to the more-recent rise).

My kid is only five years old, so I haven’t had to deal with the pre-teen and teen social angst yet. I have had to deal with general screen time issues, however, and this has led to some discussions and policies surrounding content and access.

My general plan is to set some firm limits supported by real data and to explain in detail the reasons for our household policies. I have already had many discussions with my child about why a developing body and brain need physical activity and real social interaction. I try always to come back to the principle, “My job is to help you develop into a successful, thriving adult, and so that’s why . . .”

The only sort of social media in which my child engages at this point is YouTube, on which I set tight limits. On his tablet device, I approve only certain (educational) YouTube channels. When we watch YouTube together on the “big screen,” I routinely explain to my child the nature of advertising. “Why are they showing you this?” I ask. He already understands at a basic level that people spend money on advertising to try to get other people to buy stuff or behave differently.

My hope is that, by the time my child finds himself in the pre-teen social stew, we will have had enough conversations about advertising, social pressure, bullying, addictive behaviors, predatory behaviors, brain development, and (simplified) evolutionary biology that we’ll be able to slowly and safely expand his use of the internet, until the point when finally (in high school) he’ll be ready for Facebook and the like. I’m trying to build the foundation for healthy online behaviors now. We’ll see how well this all works out—so far I’m hopeful.

September 23, 2020, update: For a much more positive view of kids using technology, including social media, listen to Jordan Shapiro’s remarks. Shapiro argues that it’s probably a good idea to introduce such technology to children when they’re younger but that adults should monitor use.

Image: Pabak Sarkar