Many parents and experts ask, "Should kids have social media?" Deciding when they are old enough for social media apps and which ones they can use is a complex issue. Social media use among teens is already ubiquitous. One survey reports that up to 95% of teens use a social media platform, and about a third say they're scrolling, posting, or otherwise engaged with social media "almost constantly."
This can be a source of concern to parents who worry when kids are constantly glued to their phones. Adults have justifiable fears that kids will encounter inappropriate material or be approached by strangers. On the other hand, parents may also see their kids using social media to communicate with friends, share favorite music, or organize in-person social events.
Figuring out how to ensure kids are safe and happy online is an ongoing process for all parents.
Negative Effects of Social Media on Mental Health
Social media is still a relatively new phenomenon. Research about how it affects human development is ongoing, and there are no definitive answers yet.
The American Psychological Association acknowledges that there is significant potential for harm to kids' mental health, but the degree varies among individuals. They note, "Not all findings apply equally to all youth. Scientific findings offer one piece of information that can be used along with knowledge of specific youths' strengths, weaknesses, and context to make decisions that are tailored for each teen, family, and community."
There are known risks for social media use. A 2019 study revealed that teens who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety compared to teens who spend less time online.
Some kids may experience negative feelings related to comparing themselves to others online. Cyberbullying and hateful comments can negatively affect kids and teens. Exposure to content that contains hateful, violent, or bigoted material can increase feelings of anxiety and depression.
Positive Effects of Social Media
For some kids and teens, social media use may not be problematic. It may even be beneficial. Online interaction can deepen friendships and increase feelings of connectedness. Technology can give kids and teens a way to stay in touch with friends or family who live far away. Gaming sites and video chatting provide real-time interactions and shared activities. Some social media platforms enable kids to showcase artwork, writing, or music.
Setting social media boundaries and expectations requires accounting for all of these factors and applying them to individual children appropriately.
Understanding Your Child's Relationship With Social Media
Before parents can set boundaries on social media use, they need to assess how their kids are using social media. For children just getting their first phone, they may not have any social media accounts. Some kids may use gaming sites with chat functions where all interactions happen in real time. Other kids may have accounts on apps like Instagram, Snapchat, or Reddit, where they can send and post comments, photos, and videos. Parents can start the conversation by asking thoughtful questions, such as:
- What sites or apps do kids use?
- What do they do on social media? Do they post, comment, communicate with DMs, or just look at things other people post?
- Why do kids like the apps and websites they use?
- How do online interactions make them feel?
- What apps and websites do their peers use?
Grasping what appeals to kids about online communication can guide discussions about using it safely and wisely. For example, it's important to know if a teen uses private messaging to chat with a friend who has moved away. Adults can take positive uses of social media into account when setting guidelines for use overall.
Establishing Collaborative Guidelines With Your Child
One of the goals for setting rules about social media use is to help kids be mindful of how they spend time online. Rather than setting arbitrary rules, it can be better to have a discussion with kids about online time. Ask them why they spend time on social media apps, what they enjoy about using them, and what they don't enjoy. Ask about how their peers use social media to get a sense of the social media environment in which they operate.
Together, parents and children can build a list of guidelines about how they use social media and how much time they spend online each day. Clearly explain expectations about social media, school, extracurricular commitments, and daily time. Work with kids and teens to find a way to fit social media in around higher priority activities. Set time limits if appropriate. Create an agreement about who they can accept as friends and what privacy settings they employ.
There are pros and cons of parents monitoring social media use. Giving kids privacy is important, but adults also need to be firm about the need for social media safety for kids. Using parental controls to limit and monitor the use of apps can protect kids from predators.
Some families find it helpful to create a contract about social media use. Adults and kids then have a written agreement that they can both use to guide behavior moving forward. Organizations like Common Sense Media offer samples of social media contracts for families.
Identifying Warning Signs of Excessive Use
Excessive use of social media isn't healthy for people of any age. Spending too much time online can distract people from other responsibilities and real-life relationships and exacerbate health issues related to a sedentary lifestyle.
Some kids and teens may fall into a habit of excessive social media use without realizing it's happening. The American Psychological Association (APA) lists the following signs of excessive social media use:
- A tendency to use social media even when adolescents want to stop or realize it is interfering with necessary tasks
- Spending excessive effort to ensure continuous access to social media
- Strong cravings to use social media or disruptions in other activities from missing social media use too much
- Repeatedly spending more time on social media than intended
- Lying or deceptive behavior to retain access to social media use
- Loss or disruption of significant relationships or educational opportunities because of media use
The APA advises parents to regularly assess whether kids are showing signs of problematic social media use. If screen time use is becoming problematic, adults should share their concerns with the child. To change behavior, adults can increase restrictions on the amount of time kids spend online and the kinds of apps or games they are using. Adults should also present kids with alternative activities to replace social media use.
Encouraging Offline Activities and Interactions
One tried and true tactic for getting kids off devices is to offer alternative activities that they enjoy. Many kids feel a little lost when adults say, "Put down the tablet and find something else to do." Adults can help by presenting options of what "something else" can be.
Scheduling regular in-person activities, such as sports, art classes, music lessons, or other interests, is an easy way to plan offline time. Family activities such as camping, hiking, board games, shared meals, and outings to museums, sporting events, and plays can also provide an alternative to online time. Many kids and teens will agree to put devices away during unstructured time with their friends. No screen playdates can foster independent, offline play and strengthen friendships.
Leading by Example
Parents and caregivers can show kids what healthy social media use looks like and talk to them about how they choose to engage with social media. This sets a strong example for kids. Model setting good boundaries with social media rules, such as:
- Phone-free meals
- Periods each day where the whole family stays offline
- Cutting out all phone use while driving
- In-person family activities without phones
Adults who are concerned that social media is causing mental health problems in a child or teen should reach out to a healthcare provider or mental health professional. Changing social media habits may cut off the source of the problem, but young people will need help dealing with the longer-term effects. Everyone in the family may benefit from talking with a counselor to understand how social media affects them and how to avoid future difficulties.