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Just a couple weeks ago, at the end of January, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy announced that he believes 13 is too young for social media. He told CNN Newsroom that “the skewed and often distorted environment of social media often does a disservice to many … children” because they are still “developing their identity.”
His comments are supported by a growing body of research which suggests that social media use can actually change the brain chemistry of teens. Not only can consistently checking social media make teens “more sensitive to social feedback over time” but it also causes an unhealthy “dopamine dump” in the brain, similar to the effect of alcohol or drug abuse.
Chances are, armed with the Surgeon General’s comments and that research, more parents will be eager to keep their young teens away from social media for as long as possible. And chances are most of us knew on an intuitive level that social media wasn’t serving our kids, anyway.
The issue is then less about whether to keep young teens away from social media, but how. How do we keep our children off social media, particularly when so many of their peers are online? And then, how do we guide them when they do get started?
SheKnows spoke to parenting educator and author of Break Free from Reactive Parenting Laura Linn Knight to help parents figure out how to have the social media conversation with their young teens.
Regular Family Gatherings
Family meetings are the key to starting a social media conversation with kids, says Knight. “They don’t have to be long, maybe 20 minutes or so. But it’s an opportunity, even if one-off, to have an open discussion” around social media. She urges parents to get curious during these meetings, to ask kids what they’re noticing about social media, what they’re noticing with their friends, and what they’re noticing with themselves — the good and the bad — and then steering the conversation to the Surgeon General’s comments and asking kids what they think.
Having a conversation, educating, getting curious about your child’s thoughts, and giving them a voice in the discussion about social media is particularly important with older kids, who want autonomy and who probably see their friends on social media. “Let them feel included,” says Knight. “Educate them within the conversation, and still hold that strong boundary.”
Along with discussing social media, she urges families to sit down together another time to discuss their overall values as a family — as in, do they value time together or nature or game nights? — and then question how device use fits into that. “Usually, we find that families don’t value sitting and scrolling on their phones for hours at time.”
Don’t Fear the Upset When You Know More Good is Going to Come
The Surgeon General acknowledged that because social media is so popular, it’s easier said than done to keep children off social media. He noted that parents would have an easier time keeping young teens off social media if they “band together” and collectively decide to keep kids off until a predetermined age.
It’s a solid plan, though not realistic for all parents, particularly those of us who live in larger communities. Which means, our children will probably have friends who are on social media at an age that we deem too young. Which means — in their eyes — we will have to be that parent who is strict and unfair and out of touch.
Knight’s advice, which comes from Positive Discipline, is “don’t fear the tantrum.” Make the decision based on the well-being of your child, then have the family gathering. Sit down and have the open discussion. Educate, listen, validate, and then hold your boundary. “Continue to educate and empathize, but still hold strong in what you know is best for your child.”
She suggests filling the time not on social media with other things that breed connection — especially connection with you. “Their connection with you will make the meltdown less and [build] the understanding of your decision,” says Knight. “If they’re looking for connection on social media, let’s provide them with other healthy alternatives … more playdates, sports, and activities.” More connection with you.
Stay Informed and Keep an Open Door Policy
Once you do make the decision to allow your child onto social media, the best way to guide them is to stay informed. “Be really clear about what’s safe and appropriate. And once we say ‘okay here’s your access,’ be clear on what that includes,” says Knight.
Some things to consider are private versus public accounts, the reason behind choosing to post —whether the purpose is to chat or collect likes — and the kinds of things to post, including keeping in mind that what feels appropriate or funny at 13 years old might be the reason an employer chooses not to hire at 18 years old.
It’s equally important to keep an open-door policy once teens start on social media. This is particularly important for younger teens, says Knight, who suggests having open conversations and asking teens what’s the best way to check in with them about social media. It’s “not about invading all their privacy,” says Knight.
No Guilt; No Parent-Shaming
We’re the first generation of parents really grappling with social media use in young kids. As lawmakers work to figure out the laws around social media, we’re left navigating this wide-open world on our own.
Which means, we might make mistakes. Maybe we gave in on social media too early (guilty!) and now we truly know better and want to backtrack.
“None of this is about guilt and shame as a parent,” says Knight. “We’re all learning together and need to have compassion for ourselves as we navigate this uncharted territory.”
Maybe instead of feeling shame, guilt, or anxiety, the best thing we can do (for ourselves) is to reframe the conversation around social media as an opportunity to reevaluate our values. Look at how we’re spending our time as a family and what we’re putting our efforts into, advises Knight.
“These years are so precious,” she says. “It goes by so fast, so let’s use this conversation as an opportunity to adjust course within our home and reconnect more with ourselves than our screens.”
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