should kid use social media?In today’s world, technology surrounds us. Not only do we have computers that follow us wherever we go in the form of phones, tablets and laptops, but because of these devices, we are also constantly online. As ubiquitous as technology is, though, it’s important to take a step back and realize that this always-connected culture is a recent phenomenon. In fact, many of us were raised in eras where this technology was either extremely limited or nonexistent. However, this isn’t the case for today’s youth, given that children growing up now have been born into and molded by a sea of screens. This has experts and parents worried about the effects that excessive Internet and, especially, social media use can have on children. Keep reading to learn about how social media can affect children as well as some of the ways you can promote responsible social media use should you consider allowing your children to use social media.

What exactly is social media?

In order to understand how social media affects children, it’s necessary to understand just what social media is and the role it plays in our lives. When we use the term “social media,” we’re specifically referring to web services or apps designed to help us meet people, maintain friendships and share information virtually. The Internet has always been a place of sharing ever since its inception. Even as early as the 1980s, virtual social communities existed, but the social media of today is far more extensive, given that we’re able to share a diverse range of content. Often, this content permeates into the real world with Facebook statuses being quoted as fact and tweets being featured in news reports. This has allowed the lines between the digital world and real world to somewhat blur. It also doesn’t help that we always carry our phones around and our online identities are often very closely tied to our real identities.

This online-sharing characteristic of social media often means that a certain level of finesse and maturity is needed to navigate the medium. Between the proliferation of factually inaccurate information and scams designed to hijack our machines and/or steal our identities, those of us actively trying to stay safe online have our work cut out for us. But add to that the pressures the typical adolescent faces as they’re coming of age – trying to figure out who they are, determining who their friends are and finding what they want to do in life – and social media can add another dimension of unneeded complexity to some children’s lives. As a result, many experts have proposed reducing or outright eliminating social media use for both children and preteens. Even techies such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs imposed strict limits regarding when and how their children could use technology.

How does social media affect children?

Social media has always had cybersecurity and safety implications which directly affect children – many of which we’ve covered at length before. However, there’s a wealth of literature detailing the psychological effects of social media on both adults and children that aren’t as frequently discussed. Social media often affects children in the same manner as adults, but given that children’s brains are still developing, it has a more severe effect on them. That’s why below we focus on detailing the psychological impact of social media.

The psychology of social media

It’s possible you’ve already seen dozens of articles talking about the depressive effects social media can have on users. These effects have a stronger impact on children because of their brain’s incomplete development. That said, generally social media has the following effects on people:

1. Social media is addictive. Some studies have confirmed that social media is very addictive, especially for children. Receiving adoration from people, even in the form of virtual “likes,” hearts and texts, is something we are hardwired to value. Additionally, social media tends to make a game out of earning attention. Without maturity and self-restraint, children (and even many adults) can often be overly sensitive to the values and opinions of others online. This fixation isn’t just addictive, but it can also create anxiety and depression, affect a child’s ability focus and even impact their grades.

2. Social media can distort and destroy self-esteem. Because of the blurry lines between social media and reality, many people, especially children, take content online at face value. When a child sees peers with more “friends” and better pictures attending more events they might internalize this as a personal failure and feel that it’s their fault they can’t look or be the same way. This can have a detrimental effect on a child’s still developing self-esteem and worth.

3. Social media can be isolating. A recent study on young adults found that the more social media someone used, the more likely they were to feel isolated. While this might seem paradoxical, researchers suspect that the inauthenticity around some social media interactions as well as the feelings of exclusion that can develop from so-called FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) likely make social media somewhat alienating for some individuals.

4. Children might be subjected to advertising and other types of influences. Something that’s necessary to consider when using social media is that it’s a product which essentially exists to profit from users’ screen time. This is a fact, with sometimes disturbing implications, that can impact any user regardless of their age. For example, internal documents obtained earlier this year by The Australian found that Facebook executives in Australia promoted advertising campaigns that exploited users’ emotional states, with some of these ads explicitly targeting teenagers. Facebook suggests that The Australian’s analysis of the report is misleading, claiming that it doesn’t use its research to target users for advertising. Regardless of Facebook’s claim, this isn’t the first time Facebook has gotten into hot water over exploiting users’ emotions. In 2014, it was revealed that Facebook deliberately manipulated the emotional content of users’ feeds at random for the purposes of an experiment. Sadly, Facebook is likely far from the only social media company that has engaged in such behavior.

It’s important to note that social media can have positive psychological benefits as well, but parents should still closely monitor their children’s online activity and be aware of any changes in their children’s mood should they allow their children to use social media.

How can parents regulate social media use?

While social media can have some devastating effects on kids, it’s important to note that if your child is mature enough and social media use is limited, then the effects aren’t necessarily detrimental. Ultimately, the choice of whether or not to allow your children to use social media is yours alone to make, but if you do let your kids use social media, you may want to consider these tips:

  • Set strict time limits. A lot of the literature on the effects of social media seems to suggest that it’s the excessive use of social media that is particularly damaging. With this in mind, you should set weekly limits for social media use. You can also set limits for each individual social media session. While you can do this on your own, using a parental control program makes it easy to set these limits and monitor your children’s online activity. While you can opt to use a parental control program in secret, you can also use it as a teaching tool to use with your children. For example, you and your child can sit down once per week or every other week and go over parts of their online activity concerned you. That said, it should be noted that not all children are mature enough for this type of regular check-in, so that’s something you’ll want to consider.
  • Be selective about which sites your child uses. Not all social media sites are created equally. Some feature photos and videos more prominently than others, and others are mostly for chatting with strangers. You should be aware of the specific sites or apps your children use and approve (or disapprove) of any new ones your children might consider joining.
  • Be familiar with your children’s security settings. In addition to approving and knowing which sites your children use, you should also be aware of the security settings they have active on the sites that they use. Insufficient privacy settings can lead to things like cyberstalkers and other forms of harassment.
  • Set a good example. If you’re on the same social networks as your children, set a good example by limiting your own use of social media and avoid oversharing details about you or your children’s lives.

Online safety can be difficult to manage without help, which is why parents should not only talk about the topic with their kids, but also help them maintain habits that will protect their identities online. Keep reading our technology blog to learn more tips that can keep you and your family safe online.