Helping Parents Help Kids Navigate Social Media World

Published November 10, 2021

The potentially negative effects that social media can have on children have been highlighted recently during congressional hearings that have attracted national attention.

“Our children will need to grow up to find a reasonable way to incorporate, tolerate and utilize social technologies in their lives. We really cannot afford to be passive in that process. We need to be engaged, which includes offering firm boundaries. ”
Assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, and director of the child and adolescent psychiatry fellowship program
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Sourav Sengupta, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, provides advice on how adults can help young children and teens navigate the ever-changing landscape of social media, even if many of today’s parents and caregivers did not grow up with these technologies as central to their daily lives.

Setting Boundaries

Sourav Sengupta, MD

Sengupta says that trusted adults can support young people by setting age- and developmentally-appropriate boundaries. It’s not a matter of “teetotaling,” he notes: It’s about slowly teaching young people how to use social media in healthy ways.

“I think we are generally behind as adults in keeping up with our children’s social technology use,” says Sengupta, an expert in child adolescent mental health who sees patients through UBMD Psychiatry. “While some parents of younger children identify as ‘digital natives,’ many parents became more active social technology users beyond childhood or adolescence."

“Our children will need to grow up to find a reasonable way to incorporate, tolerate and utilize social technologies in their lives,” adds Sengupta, who directs the child and adolescent psychiatry fellowship program at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “We really cannot afford to be passive in that process. We need to be engaged, which includes offering firm boundaries.”

Q&A for Caregivers

Question: What are some ways that social media impacts mental health?

Sengupta: There is significant evidence for the negative social and emotional impacts of excessive social technology use. For example, there are concerns for increased social isolation, lower self-esteem, decreased participation in normative healthy activities, and decreased concentration. On the other hand, there is also evidence to support adolescents utilizing social technologies to explore their identities, connect with peers and family, and learn more about their world.

Question: How do generational gaps create challenges for parents and caregivers?

Sengupta: I think that many of us do not have meaningful lived experiences of what it means to be a modern child with so much access to such a broad range and depth of social, cultural and technological information, all the time. For parents and caregivers who find themselves a bit overwhelmed, we may need to catch up a bit. Check in with other parents, spend some time interacting with the apps your kids are using. If you’re looking for a little primer, check out Common Sense Media’s Social Media resource page for parents.

Question: Instagram has been in the news a lot lately. What are some considerations for this platform?

Sengupta: Instagram is a highly visual medium. It immediately grabs our attention at a very primal level. Combine that with the experience of getting (or not getting) ‘likes,’ responding to comments, and constantly comparing complex experiences through pictures with limited context, and you’ve got a recipe for a highly stimulating, variably rewarding, intermittently toxic social experience for young people. Instagram can really lend itself to the ‘curated life’ phenomena. 

If you see other users primarily posting about their most amazing positive experiences, it can give the impression that others’ lives are amazing while mine is ‘just OK.’ Teens can spend a significant amount of time agonizing over getting a post ‘just right.’ To me, parents’ supervision and potential concern over use may need to be proportional to the amount of time and energy an adolescent spends crafting the perfect image or comment.

Question: What tips do you have for parents?

Sengupta: Think purposeful and pro-social. If young people are using social media to learn something new, interact with peers about a special event coming up, or directly connect with a friend or family member, these can be healthy ways for them to feel connected and engaged in their social world.

Limits are important. We know that spending hours a day on social media can put young people at increased risk for depression. One study showed that limiting use to 30 minutes or less per day was associated with decreased loneliness and depression. For teens, 30 minutes or less a day is a great goal, but may feel far off for many teens and families. If you are pulling back, do it gradually and don’t be surprised by resistance. For younger children, strongly consider holding off on anything other than directly supervised use or video calls with trusted friends and families. And don’t forget, there should be a significant amount of screen-free time before bed.

Slowly grant increasing freedom as young people demonstrate they are developmentally prepared to handle that autonomy. It’s like how you’d approach helping young people gradually develop a healthy relationship with alcohol or rich foods or romance. Different families will have different values and priorities that inform how much and how often their kids will use these technologies, but we need to be involved. We need to (re)engage.

Familiarize yourself with the social technologies children and teens are using. You should be on their platforms as a friend or connection. There should be a clear understanding that you get to ‘vet’ what is being posted.

Talk to young people about digital safety. They should understand that they shouldn’t give away personal/private information to strangers. For teens, we need to discuss healthy emotional expressions and contrast those with exploitative or risky expressions they may come to regret. If teens are being too excessive or risky in their social media use, parents may have to be creative and persistent in finding ways to appropriately limit use. And if this is feeling too difficult, it may be time to check in with a teen’s pediatrician or consult with a therapist.

Lastly, work to be a good role model. Teens are going to find it difficult to listen to their parents about less screen time if adults in the household are constantly on their devices. Find ways to unplug and spend quality time together as a family. It’s not always easy, but always worth it.