Health and Wellness

Even if you can't keep your kids off social media, you can moderate their time online—here's how, from a therapist

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In May, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy delivered a stern warning about social media's impact on the mental health of children. "At this time, we do not yet have enough evidence to determine if social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents," Murthy's advisory states.

The age of 13 is "too early" for children to use social media, he said earlier this year. Having kids wait until they're at least 16 is a much better approach, Murthy told CNN.

And it may seem like the simple solution is to keep young kids off of social media platforms entirely, but that's not realistic for everyone.

The minimum age requirement to create accounts on major platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat is 13, but many kids still find ways to use apps to stay connected to friends and classmates, without their parents knowing.

If your child is actively engaged with social media, you should make sure they're using it appropriately, says Dr. Stacy Doumas, Chief of the Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at Hackensack Meridian's Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

"It's really about having conversations about [what's] out there," says Doumas. "And encouraging age-appropriate, healthy behaviors that revolve around friendships and different activities that might be more productive than spending time online."

Whether your children are 10, 14 or 16, Doumas recommends taking these four steps to better guide their online activity.

Use these 4 steps to moderate your kids' social media activity

1. Find out what they're using social media for, and how it's affecting them

It can be helpful to simply ask your kids what apps they're using and what things they're interacting with, Doumas says.

When you approach them about their online activities, you shouldn't only ask about whether or not they're on social media. It is also important to know the types of content they're consuming, Doumas says.

To start, ask these key questions about the content your kids engage with:

  • Are the posts you're interacting with violent or sexual in nature?
  • Do they involve online bullying or harassment?

Despite your biggest fears, not everything your child accesses on social media is negative. And many kids do look to these sites and apps as a fun and easy way to connect with friends.

Even then, Doumas suggests parents be aware of how social media impacts a child's overall behaviors: "Is it disrupting sleep? Is it disrupting in-person socialization or your family time?" she says.

"Because that really makes a difference in whether you're consuming social media in a healthy, positive way, or whether it might have a negative impact on you as a teenager."

2. Create a family plan for social media use

Make a decision, as a family, about these key factors:

  • What age can children in our family start using social media?
  • At what times of day is social media use okay?
  • What are our social media limits?

Setting these rules alongside your children "fosters open communication" from parent to child, and vice versa, about what's acceptable and what's not.

This level of transparency can set a strong foundation for parents "so they know what their kids are doing," says Doumas.

Adhering to your own social media limits, will set a good example for your kids, she adds: "You want to also make sure you're modeling good social media use yourself, that is healthy and appropriate."

3. Educate your kids on what they may see, but respect their privacy

Talk to your children about what they may come across on the apps they use, Doumas says. By explaining to them why certain things are inappropriate or dangerous, they will be more likely to flag them when they happen.

"You can empower them to make the right choices, and also to report if they see something happening that's not okay. If they see a child in need, or someone being bullied or harassed," she says.

Know that it's completely okay to monitor your child's social media accounts, says Doumas, "as long as you let them know you're doing it" to avoid violating their privacy.

"As teens get older, you want to trust them. You want to give them their independence," she says. But make sure you have conversations with them about the sensitive content they may see, so they feel comfortable talking to you about it.

4. Encourage healthy social activities outside of the internet

Consider the possibility that your child is turning to social media for long periods of time because they feel lonely. In 2020, loneliness was on the rise, and social media users, especially Gen Zers, were feeling it the most, according to a Cigna study.

To help your kids avoid developing a reliance on social media for connection, guide them to other activities for social interaction, Doumas says.

Here are some things you can do, that are especially great for teens, she says:

  • Suggest making plans with their friends
  • Talk to them about what sports they may be interested in
  • Help them find an after-school job

"[This is] not to say absolutely no social media, [but] encourage them to go hang out with their friends after school, and throw the football around," Doumas says.

"Really encourage all of those other healthy behaviors of adolescence, so social media will gradually be a smaller part of their life."

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