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How to Safely Ease Your Child Into Social Media Use

ages 11 years - 18 years ages 5 years - 11 years choices & checkpoints milestones screen time Apr 02, 2024


World Health Day is coming up, so this week, we are focussing on healthier screen time - specifically, the challenge of safely introducing our children to social media.  Social media is a tool as potent in its capacity to connect and educate as it is to isolate and mislead.  The journey of guiding our children through the labyrinth of likes, shares, and tweets is akin to teaching them to navigate a vast, bustling city.  It requires preparation, guidance, and ongoing dialogue to ensure they reap the benefits while steering clear of the pitfalls.  


Balancing the Pros and Cons

Social media is a double-edged sword.  On one side, it offers a platform for self-expression, learning, and connecting with like-minded individuals.  On the flip side, it exposes users to cyberbullying, privacy breaches, and the psychological impacts of constant comparison.  Parents' views on the appropriate age for children to embark on their social media journey vary widely, reflecting a spectrum of concerns and values.  However, the consensus leans towards one crucial practice: close monitoring and the establishment of clear boundaries.


Introducing Social Media: A Step-by-Step Approach

A prudent approach to introducing social media involves starting with a daily limit - perhaps 30 minutes or 1 hour is a reasonable benchmark.  How do you enforce these limits?  One way is to use parental controls built into the app or your child’s phone.  Another is to establish physical boundaries around screen use in your home.  For example, phones stay plugged into their charging station until we leave for school and are returned when we get home from school.  They can come out during your one hour of screen time from 5-6 pm.


This initial phase of social media use can focus on a limited number of platforms.  I’d recommend starting with one to two and very gradually adding more over a period of years.  There’s no need to be on every social media platform.  Have your child find out which ones their friends are on to guide their selection.


Here is a very important principle for safely introducing your child to social media: Clearly establish with your child that their social media use is a limited privilege.  Let them know that you are comfortable allowing them to view and like posts but that they may not dislike, comment, or otherwise engage with posts beyond a simple like.


Make it crystal clear that they may not post their own content on any social media channels.  Such gradual exposure serves as a buffer, helping children acclimate to the social media environment under the protective gaze of their parents.  How long these restrictions last is a personal decision for each family to make, keeping in mind their child’s unique personality and situation.  There is no rush to advance quickly, but I encourage parents to keep in mind that by age eighteen, it is reasonable for their child to have full access to their social media accounts.  This transition is best done gradually rather than suddenly, so depending on what age you allow your child to have social media, plan ahead for a gradual transition to more and more access.  That said, they may never want or need to post on social media; being a consumer but not a producer is a perfectly viable option.


The Why Behind the Boundaries 

Kids who are old enough to have access to social media are old enough to be involved in the discussion of why boundaries are necessary.  The rationale for these restrictions is twofold.  Firstly, it's about balancing the inherent pros and cons of social media engagement, including the very real risk of negative feelings like anxiety and depression resulting from the content they may view and the interactions they may have with other people on social media.  


Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it acknowledges the developmental reality that children’s and teenagers' brains are still in the process of maturing.  Their developmental stage impacts their ability to consistently make thoughtful decisions, especially in the context of the immediate gratification that social media often offers.  I routinely tell my kids that it’s hard to know what actions they may look back on in five years or ten years and feel good about versus those they may regret.  Once they put information on social media, it is there forever.  


Kids should not be misled into thinking posts can be deleted and forgotten; a screenshot can be taken, even of a disappearing post, and come back to haunt them.  I tell my kids that I have no idea what career they’ll pursue as adults, but I want them to keep their options open and never learn that their run for president was foiled by a social media post from their youth.  That example is a bit extreme, but it hits home with kids and reinforces your belief that great things lie ahead in their future.


Fostering Open Communication

Central to navigating the social media maze is maintaining an open line of communication with our children.  Regular check-ins, characterized by questions like, "Has anything interesting popped up on your account this week? Anything that surprised you? Any negative interactions?" can illuminate your child's online experience.  These conversations are invaluable, offering insights that can guide further discussions about digital citizenship and online safety.


You can also educate your child about how they can curate their social media feed.  Teach them that the algorithm sends them more content similar to what they view and like.  Even if they hover over a post for just a few seconds, the algorithm tracks that behavior.  So teach your children to only watch and like posts that bring them joy to train their account to be a positive space.


Demystifying Digital Media

To empower parents further on this journey, I offer a free workshop titled Screen Time Myths.  This one-hour online training aims to debunk common misconceptions about digital media use, providing clarity on what's fact and what's fiction.  Armed with this knowledge, parents can feel more confident in their ability to guide their children through the digital landscape.  You can get registered today here.


Take-Home Message

Guiding our children through the world of social media is not a task we undertake alone.  It's a journey of connection, learning, and growth that we share with our children.  By setting clear boundaries, fostering open communication, and educating ourselves about the digital world, we can help our children navigate social media responsibly.  If your child is getting ready to embark on their social media journey, use the tips discussed above to ease them into that experience with your close supervision.  If they already have access to social media, know that it’s not too late to backtrack; parents are continuously learning how to best care for their children, and with new knowledge may come new screen time boundaries.  Together, we can transform the digital landscape into a space of positive growth and meaningful connections.


Establishing boundaries around social media use falls under the Choices & Checkpoints category of my 5 C’s parenting framework (click here to learn more about The 5 C’s).  To view more posts in this category, use the category search menu on the right of your screen.  Thanks for joining me to fill your parenting toolbox with psychology-based tools to feel more confident and capable in your parenting.  Keep up the good work on your amazing parenting journey!

P.S. Remember to join my Screen Time Myths Workshop for essential information about how screen time affects your child and how you can use that information to establish clear and reasonable screen time boundaries for your family.


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