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Director's Dispatch: Raising a Screen Smart Kid

On Friday, November 1, I gave a presentation at the Father’s Only Breakfast based on the book by Julianna Miner. Below is a summary of the presentation.

Children get their first smartphone between the ages of ten and twelve. Children at this age tend to be impulsive and take risks. At times, giving them unfiltered access to social media can be like giving the same child a match in the middle of a forest. We know that children will behave in age-appropriate ways online, and that is not always a good thing.

Child development between the ages of ten and fifteen is highlighted by teens and tweens becoming more focused on themselves or ego-centric and pulling away from their parents as they strive to establish their own identity. Children of this age believe in personal fables where they think that their experiences, thoughts, and emotions are unique to them, when, in fact, they are relatively common across their peers. They are trying to figure out who they are, who they want to be. They will try on new behaviors to see if they like how it feels and to see how others react to them. Children at this age one day feel invincible, and nothing can hurt them, then on another day feel invisible, and no one notices them. Their friends and classmates will become much more critical to our children. They will start to listen more and care more about what their classmates think than their parents.

The most popular social media sites for adults are Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. The most popular social media for kids are Snapchat, Instagram, and Tik Tok. Adults use social media to share text-based information and network. Teens use social media to share photos and videos. While adults realize that they are leaving a digital footprint with social media, children tend to believe what they are sharing is private, when it is the exact opposite.

There are three main ways social media affects children’s behavior, FOMO, the Art of Looking Perfect, and an Imaginary Audience. FOMO stands for Fear of Missing Out. Through Social Media, students see a party they may not have been invited to or exciting experiences they were missing. Sometimes these are events their classmates are attending, and sometimes they do not know the people. In both cases, they get the sense that they are not cool because they are not at the party. The Art of Looking Perfect can be particularly hurtful as young adolescents are going through a physically awkward stage. Children see these perfect photos online, not realizing that the person sharing the photo is only sending the best photos and probably not how they look every day. During early adolescence, teens think everything they do is being watched, and other people care what they are doing. Imagine a young teen who has a big pimple. They believe everyone notices, and everyone cares. In reality, only a portion of the people they see notice, and even fewer of them care about the pimple in five minutes. The best and worst part about adolescence becomes magnified with social media.

Research shows that teens today engage in less risky behavior, binge drinking, drug use, and sexual behavior but are more likely to struggle with anxiety and depression. Researchers have suspected that social media has played a role in the increase in mental health issues. The author’s research shows that there is not a direct connection between social media use and anxiety and depression. Instead, the child’s emotional well-being impacts how they use social media and how much they use social media. Children with healthy self-esteem will use social media to connect to people in positive ways, follow their interests, and share their accomplishments. Students with poor self-esteem are more likely to use social media to compare themselves and their lives with what they see on social media. They come to believe that other teens are more successful, having more fun, and look better than they do, which can deepen their anxiety. A risk factor for depression is low self-esteem and high-intensity social media use. Studies have shown reducing access to social media can have positive benefits for a child’s health.

There are things parents can and should do to help their children. The main one is to set clear expectations for the use of technology and social media.

  • Do not download apps or open accounts without permission.

  • Do not FaceTime or Skype in bedrooms or bathrooms.

  • Do not take, request, or share inappropriate images, especially of peers or classmates.

  • Do not take or post pictures of people without their consent.

  • Provide incremental opportunities to make responsible choices. If your child wants an Instagram account, allow them to have an account on your phone. If they make good choices for a few months, move the account to their phone, and become one of their admiring followers.

  • For any social media platform, app, or account your child has, you need to have their username and passwords. You also need to have your own account and be connected to your child as a friend or follower.

  • Talk to other parents or school counselors and teachers about what your kid’s friends and peers are doing.

  • Make discussions on Internet safety about thinking through and predicting outcomes.

  • Your family’s rules for your teen’s social life (whatever they may be) should also apply to their digital social life. If your middle schooler has to be in bed by ten, that child’s phone should be checked in before then. If your high schooler has an eleven p.m. curfew, the phone should be checked in at curfew time.

  • Phones should not be kept in kids’ rooms overnight. This practice promotes better sleep and prevents late-night interactions that should not be happening in the first place.

I want to highlight that sleep is essential for adolescents. They need more sleep than even younger children. By keeping the phones and computers out of the bedroom at night, you reduce the risk of a child doing something stupid or inappropriate with the phone. Still, you also eliminate the distraction the devices cause, which can keep children up.

The author has advice for parents as they navigate this phase of their child’s development.

  • Every kid is different, even within the same family.

  • Kids change so much from year to year.

  • Parents need to model the behavior they expect from their children.

  • Open communication is critical, which means we need to listen more and talk less.

  • Trust starts with giving kids the chance to prove they’re ready.

  • Everyone makes mistakes, sometimes bad ones.

  • Set limits, talk with children about how to use time

  • Set clear rules, write them down (“no phone in your bedroom”)

  • Who are your children following? What stories are they seeing? Whose pictures are they seeing?

  • How emotionally invested are they in social media? How upset do they get if they cannot use it?

  • Talk to children about what they are seeing. Is this normal life or a “perfect life”?

Parents should talk with their children about what happens when a mistake gets made on social media and how the child could address or minimize the damage. A good way to do this is to find a story in the news about a teen sharing a risqué picture or sharing a secret with a large audience. Read the article together and talk about the consequences of this behavior. Brainstorm with your child about what could be done after the fact to address the issue. Teens will be more likely to discuss the situation if it is not directly about them, and the conversation should happen before your child makes a mistake.

The key to helping your child navigate social media is being a good listener, having clear expectations, and engaging in open conversations while avoiding blaming the child for poor behavior. Your child’s school counselor is an excellent resource if you have questions or need support. Feel free to contact me ( with any questions you have.

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