With summer around the corner, it is the perfect time to review your children’s and teens’ use of social media, especially after the release of the U.S. surgeon general’s new general advisory on social media and youth mental health.
Zakia Alavi is an associate professor of psychiatry in Michigan State University’s Department of Pediatrics and Human Development in the College of Human Medicine and an MSU Health Care provider. She discusses the concerns and provides suggestions for healthier habits regarding social media.
What can parents do to help mitigate children’s excessive use of social media this summer?
Try creating a “tech-free” time and zone in your home. Make sure that everybody, including the parents, are “unplugged and untethered” from their cell phones, etc. Start with an hour each day and increase it to at least two hours daily, ideally before bedtime.
You can tell if your child’s use of social media is problematic when you see your child becoming distant, absent from family time, receiving declining grades and experiencing a change in mood and sleep-wake cycle.
What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of the use of social media among children and adolescents?
Let us look at it from a social context. Social media is supposed to be a way for people — kids and adults — to connect and communicate with each other. That is the purpose of it. If you think of that social connection, it sounds lovely, right?
However, for us to access social media, we must disconnect from our immediate environment.
But it is also a skewed connection. Social media-based communication in some ways is artificial because you are communicating from a place that is disconnected from your real life — a true parallel universe! Your child is navigating a whole universe without having the tools and safeguards that are crucial to their physical and social-emotional safety.
Why is the use of social media so negative?
Something that has happened over time and, especially since the pandemic started, is that instead of being one more way of communicating or expressing yourself, social media became the only way to express and communicate.
And the other thing is that communicating with your computer screen, your phone, anything that is technological uses both a different part of the brain and distinct functions of the brain than if you and I were meeting in person and talking to each other. The stimuli that your child gets from social media are unpredictable, exciting and provide immediate gratification; this taps into the brain’s pleasure-reward center, which is involved in addiction behaviors.
Then, we look at the developmental aspect; a big part of childhood and adolescent development is learning social and emotional cues from others and from our own responses to others.
Children learn about themselves by being around other people. These other people — other kids, other adults — function as mirrors in terms of what is good and not so good about them. So that feedback from others in real life serves to develop individuals’ personalities. When you take out that physicality, you are taking away that growth potential.
How can adults help children and adolescents reduce the time they spend on social media?
Show me a teenager or a child that is isolated and has problematic use of social media and I will show you the family — the entire family unit — doing the same thing.
As a child psychiatrist, I talk to parents about this every day. Before you can ask your child to put away that cell phone or to get off Instagram or TikTok, you, the parent, need to create some technology-free space for yourself. Only then can we create an environment where kids can interact with us.
Once you create that, you will begin to see that the kids will start enjoying that and if they are not, then there could be a problem in the interaction between you and your kids. There may be a problem within the family system, and you can start addressing that.
Do you think there is a role for policymakers or tech companies to restrict access to children and adolescents?
Tech companies could do more for sure. They can filter content; they can provide more checks and balances. But they do not necessarily have a role in parenting and supervising our youth. At the end of the day, that is the responsibility and the privilege that comes with being a parent or guardian.
Is there a healthy way for my child to engage with social media?
Of course! Think of social media for the child’s mind as one source of entertainment among other more tangible, physical activities. Your child’s brain is designed to engage in and enjoy a variety of activities. The use of social media can be one of those experiences if your child is thriving IRL — in real life!
What additional practical advice do you have for parents?
- Engage, when possible, in outdoor activities with the children.
- Plan and block out periods of nonelectronic time every day, especially in the evenings. It is good to discuss the reasoning behind the decision to limit electronic time with the children and as a family. And you may need to do it multiple times.
- Try to keep nighttime gaming/cell phone usage to a minimum because we want to keep the sleep-wake cycle as regulated as possible.
- Remember that limits and rules work best when the parents also follow them!