As  a  Pediatric Clinical Nurse Specialist for more than 30 years and a parent myself, I advise parents on best practices and warning signs involving their children’s social media use.

Parents tell me that their child is so good at technology and that they know their child can handle social media. I counsel families that just because children seem tech savvy at younger and younger ages doesn’t mean that their brains develop at the same fast pace.

Cognitive research has shown that reasoning abilities do not fully develop until between the ages 21-24 years old.

The ongoing angry push back to the recently launched Facebook app, Messenger Kids, for children younger than 13 years old, is filled with sound and fury from childhood experts, parents and concerned consumers.

Facebook has stated the Facebook Messenger app follows the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998 which was enacted to protect children less than 13 years of age’s personal data without parental knowledge.  With the age of cell phone acquisition now at 10.3 years old,  engaging even in what may appear as a tightly controlled app such as Facebook Messenger, still has the potential to place young children in the center of potential bullying and harassment activities that they are not prepared to handle.

A 2017 National PTA poll of 1,200 parents found that 61 percent of parents said their children under age 13 use messaging apps and/or social media. Another 81 percent of parents reported that their children began using social media between the ages of eight to 13 years.

While this study does not reveal what social media sites these children accessed, Influence Central’s 2016 report, Kids & Tech: The Evolution of Today’s Digital Natives,  noted that 39 percent of children  get a social media account at 11.4 years old. And 11 percent get a social media account younger than 10. For these Facebook underage users, COPPA is no help.

On the positive side, more than 64 percent of parents in a  2017 National PTA poll agreed stating that social media provides a convenient way to keep in touch and keep track of their children when parents were not with them. A method of instant notification of a child’s whereabouts gives parents some piece of mind.

In my discussions with parents and in my own home, I have come up with guidelines for social media use for children and teens.

  1. Know the privacy limits. For young children it is nearly impossible for them to think about the full impact of their actions on others, online or anywhere else. Understanding what privacy is and what constitutes an appropriate post or who they should share it with is not fully developed. Parents need to be aware that data from both parent and child is collected. Nothing is keeping Facebook from using this data for other program purposes and adding other types of media apps aimed at your children.
  2. Talk about limits. I recommend that parents initiate discussions about social media as soon as they are online. Even with a toddler a parent can begin talking about limiting time or where/when the tablet/computer is viewed. Don’t wait to talk with your child until he or she asks for a phone or social media account as the child most likely will have already been online and knows a lot about it. Don’t rush through these conversations; children need to hear information repeatedly in order to remember. As the child gets older, parents can increase the content of conversations using everyday examples to talk about the risks, what constitutes a good or bad post and what to do if a posting makes them uncomfortable.  Parents can ask direct questions such as “Tell me what you did on the computer/phone/tablet today?” and “What did you share on social media?” I often will share with my own children what or how I used social media during my day.
  3. Set an example. I remind parents that children learn a lot from their parents, so parents should set a good example in how to handle technology and the situations that can arise. For example putting the phone down during dinner. If you don’t put it down, it makes it harder for children to do the same.
  4. Learn what they know. Many of the parents I talk with tell me that they don’t really know that much about the apps their kids are on. I share with them that as a parent, they should know and be able to explain how the apps work and how services provided by the app function- especially how to post and how to restrict access. I also remind parents that they will most likely learn from their children and that creates a great conversation starter.  I advise parents to be same on the sites as their children and be actively engaged in what the child is engaged in online.
  5. Be aware of negative effects. Research clearly demonstrates that overuse of social media networks can lead to negative effects such as low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and loneliness for children, adolescents and young adults. This is attributed to the time spent alone checking and rechecking postings.
  6. Be their social media friend or follower. Be a friend and a regular follower of the child’s account. Don’t be afraid to say something if you see something inappropriate or negative on their site. Talking to other parents with the same age children can help in knowing what is happening in your child’s circle of friends.
  7. Know the warning signs. I also talk to parents about the warning signs of trouble: skipping activities, meals and homework for social media; weight loss or gain; a drop in grades. If a parent notices these activities happening when their children should be eating, sleeping, or participating in school activities, this may signal that the child has an addiction to online social media and is cause for concern.
  8. Get engaged and informed. Smart Talk is a website that is a collaborative effort between National PTA and Lifelock bringing parents and children together to talk about a variety of media topics including safety and privacy, screen time, social media and respect, apps, downloading, texting and calling. A new book by digital expert Ana Homayoun, is aimed at helping parents, educators and students navigate media technology, Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World, and offers tips and strategies for media usage.

As the numbers of social media apps and services aimed at younger children are growing, the reality is social media is not going away soon if ever. Parents can help their children know how to use social media responsibly.

Lynn Mohr

Lynn Mohr, PhD, is a registered nurse and Assistant Professor at Rush University College of Nursing and a Rush Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

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