A Parent’s Guide to Social Media

How to navigate the perils — and pluses — of social media for today's kids.

Is it time to raise the white flag yet? Parents seem to be losing the social media fight. 

The average tween spent 5½ hours on screens between 2019 to 2021 — an increase of 17% from the prior four years, according to a survey by the nonprofit research organization Common Sense Media. Teens spent 8½ hours on screens, up from 7½ hours, during that time.

And as many parents might suspect when they spot their kid hunkered down on the couch swiping every few seconds, the time spent on devices has ratcheted up since the pandemic.

Apparently, social media — specifically Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok — are to blame for a large portion of this screen time.

The U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory earlier this year noting that 95% of kids ages 13-17 say they are on social media and more than one-third say they use it almost constantly. 

“The most common question parents ask me is, ‘Is social media safe for my kids,’” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote in his advisory. “The answer is that we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health.” 

In the midst of an ongoing youth mental health crisis, Murthy, in issuing his advisory, worries that social media is helping fuel the crisis, with kids exposed to violent and sexual content, bullying and harassment while at the same time compromising their sleep and in-person time with friends and family.

Parents have long been worried that social media is bad for kids’ (and their own) mental health. But it’s also the primary way we all communicate these days. If you don’t allow them on it, it’s essentially the equivalent of banning the TV and the phone in the ’90s. 

Without it, your child will be unable to connect with friends, will be unaware of all of the cultural references and won’t be able to bake you any of those amazing one-mug s’mores that pop up incessantly on the social feed. Plus, as kids as young as kindergarten are handed school iPads to carry to and from school, is it even feasible to restrict their online habits — or will they counter by smugly telling you that they’ve been instructed to be on their devices for school?

So, what is a parent to do — especially a busy parent who doesn’t have time to police devices 24/7? And is there ever a time when YouTube and all those AdoptMe-type games can actually be good for our kids? 

We spoke with the experts to answer your questions. 

The FOMO issue 

The big social media issue for kids is the exact same one parents face: Everyone is showing themselves in their very best light. 

“Everyone is out there cropping the sadness out of their lives and cropping the boredness out of their lives,” says Devorah Heitner, a parent and the author of “Growing Up in Public and Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World”. “We feel like, ‘Why am I at home doing my homework, taking out the trash, doing things that are less exciting?’” 

We need to help our kids understand that other people are only showing their filtered highlight reel, which isn’t real life. 

Even worse: Kids spotting photos of parties and gatherings they weren’t invited to. Most likely, those kids texted to arrange the get-togethers. So, if all of your kid’s friends are on social media, should you give in to temptation? Maybe, Heitner says, but start with a shared account or shared phone to help them learn boundaries.

Learning those boundaries 

Start by having open and honest conversations with kids about their social media usage, Heitner says. Ask your child how they feel before and after going online. Does it make them happy or jealous? 

Since there’s no set end-time on most (or all) social media apps, it’s also important to make goals and place timers letting kids know when they should be done with their social media time. Parents need to also explain that there are many sites that may be inappropriate for them to see. 

“There isn’t a way to geofence everything,” Heitner says. “So be in the conversation, explaining why we don’t look for certain things online and why you should talk to your parents if you see something upsetting.” 

Even older kids need help setting boundaries, as social media can be addictive. Studies have found that those who spend more than three hours a day on social media have double the risk of poor mental health outcomes, including depression and anxiety and poor body image.

They want help. In a 2022 survey published in the Journal of Adolescent Health looking at nearly 900 teens and young adults ages 14-24, more than half of the respondents reported that they’ve thought about deleting their social media accounts to protect their mental wellbeing and safety. Others have set time limits or set stricter settings for themselves. 

“Parents need to feel empowered from day one,” says Lynn Zakeri, a therapist in private practice. It helps to remind your child of the reasons why you have the rules in place, adding that you have their best interests in mind. 

Social media positives 

Fear not: There are some positives to social media. 

It provides a sense of community, especially for marginalized groups like LGBTQ+ kids who may find it hard to get the support they need in their immediate surroundings, says Lee Wells, a pediatric therapist and co-author of “A Kids Book About Pronouns”. 

They can watch videos of kids similar to them, living happy lives and making a positive impact. 

Research finds that 58% of adolescents find social media helps them feel more accepted; 67% say they find people who support them through tough times there; 71% say social media gives them a spot to show off their creative side; and 80% say social media keeps them connected with friends. 

There are also plenty of inspirational, motivational and learning videos posted on YouTube by both kids and by adults. If your child is struggling with anything from learning how to do a cartwheel to making a new friend to understanding a math problem, chances are, they can find a video explaining step by step how to do it. 

Maybe it’s not time for the white flag, after all. Just maybe with working together, we parents can turn those virtual likes into real-life high-fives.

A Concerned Parent’s Checklist

Model good screentime and social media habits

Talk with your kids to hear their thoughts/concerns about social media and screentime

Check out each of the social media channels together, talking about your family’s values and why some content doesn’t fit those values

Brainstorm ways to set limits on social media and screentime you all can embrace without a fight and agree on a family media plan

Plan fun no-screentime activities as a family

Create tech-free zones at home, such as bedrooms and the dinner table

Set up online safety guidelines together, such as not sharing a location, using personal information, etc., plus ways to keep their mental health safety a priority

Check in often and remind them you are always there to listen if something’s bothering them

Lean on experts when needed. The American Academy of Pediatrics has set up an online portal to answer parents’ questions.

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