Offline advice for online regulation in kids
While the official age to be on social media is 13 years, we do know that many children below that age group are active on social media platforms. While the use has increased over the years with children, we still don’t have enough research, evidence to show and document the impact of social media on children’s mental health
On Saturday morning I was at a café for breakfast where there was a family of 3 seated next to me. The mother and two children as they waited for their breakfast to come, were on their individual phones. The older child must have been 13-15 years and the younger child was about 9-11 years old, both had their headphones on and were scrolling through short form videos on their phones. Their mum was checking messages on her phone. After about 10 minutes, they started showing each other a reel and then as the breakfast came all of them went back to eating and scrolling through videos on each of their individual phones. This sight saddened me, and I wondered how social media is eating into spaces which earlier provided an opportunity for family time and social connection.
Social media has become a huge part of children and adolescent life. While the official age to be on social media is 13 years, we do know that many children below that age group are active on social media platforms. While the use has increased over the years with children, we still don’t have enough research, evidence to show and document the impact of social media on children’s mental health. Yet, as a therapist, I have seen an increase in the number of parents who reach out for issues likes cyberbullying, eating disorders, poor self-esteem-- emanating from social media comparisons-- inability to sleep or delayed sleeping, exposure to hate comments, and overall anxiety in their teenagers.
Given how prevalent the social media use has become with children, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released an advisory earlier in May talking about social media and mental health of the young, along with recommendations that parents, adolescents, researchers, policy makers and technology companies can keep in mind to protect the safety and emotional wellbeing of children. American Psychological Association also issued recommendations for adolescent social media use. What seems to emerge through both these recommendations is that we, as parents and practitioners, need to educate our children and help them build guardrails that protect them and help them use social media in a more mindful way.
To understand how a child’s brain works from the age of 10 years to the time they are 25 years old is the first step. While adolescence is always given a bad name, we need to remember that this is a period of rapid brain development for our children and a time when they are beginning to explore autonomy, make their own decisions in social interactions, form their own identity and a time where they are most curious and are ready to explore. At the same time, we do know that the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain which is responsible for decision making, develops fully only in our mid 20’s. Given this understanding, we need to work collaboratively with our young children in a way whereby we offer them information around media literacy, how the digital world works and behaviors that are to be avoided such as not participating when others are bullied or sharing information that’s private. At the same time, we need to remember that this is the time where we need to be most mindful about how we are modelling social media use for them. We know that teenage brains respond to stress very differently from adults, so having conversations about how information can be overwhelming online, the need to filter information one sees and hears, ability to separate a fact from a rumor, having time limits when it comes to consuming data are very essential. It’s important for parents to see that adolescents figure out time for physical activity, exercise, meeting friends in person, engaging in activities they enjoy and not just passively consume content on social media. I often suggest to parents that as a family it’s a good idea to put the devices away, particularly the phone at least 30-45 minutes before they go off to sleep and to ensure that their adolescent gets at least 8 hours of sleep.
We have a long journey ahead when it comes to social media use, so learning to keep channels of communication open and an ongoing dialogue is the way we can ensure safety and wellbeing of our children.