Social Media is something relatively new in the whole scheme of things. Can you believe it was only fifteen years ago when MySpace hit the scene followed closely behind by Facebook? Now, we can’t imagine life without apps, tablets, the latest and greatest iPhone.
The fascination with devices starts at a very young age. How many times have you been out to dinner and the tables are filled with people more focused on what’s on their phones than the people with them? And that includes the children! It’s often easier to give a child a tablet or phone to play with so that they will be quiet with no fussing at dinner. It is a whole new way for children to be “seen and not heard”. At a very young age, this begins to promote a world of isolation and an unreal sense of reality.
When Social Media Interferes with Real Life
For many, playing on an app or posting selfies has become much easier than to deal with real life. It can get to the point where we forget how to have real and healthy communication with friends and family. Our self worth is being tied up by Likes and comments. How many followers and online “friends” we have is determining our perception of how popular we are. There is nothing inherently wrong with social media. But, like anything else, when it begins to infringe on our lives and real relationships, it becomes a problem.
How fast and easy it is to post is another danger of social media. This combined with a feeling of distance or even anonymity can cause a lot of problems. Comments and pictures are posted without thought of the consequences that will affect the future. This is especially true of teenagers. Teens don’t always have the life experience to foresee the repercussions of what they are posting. Even today we see celebrities and politicians being criticized for past social media posts or pictures. How can we expect our children to avoid these traps when even adults are getting caught in them?
As parents, making sure that our children are aware of these future consequences is our responsibility. It is not uncommon for potential employers to do an online search or request access to Facebook and Instagram to evaluate a possible employee. None of us want our children to experience the embarrassment of losing a job due to something they wish they hadn’t posted. Even posts that are meant to be private can very easily be made public. And once something goes public on the internet, there is no taking it back.
Of course, with healthy boundaries social media can be a fun part of socialization and communication starters within your family. Social media can also be a good way to keep in touch with people from a distance. So when does it switch over from something that occupies our time to an unhealthy habit?
When Social Media Use Becomes Addiction
When you think about addiction, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Probably not someone on their phone. Our first thoughts are usually about someone on the streets doing whatever they can for their next fix. Or maybe it’s the housewife who can’t live without her next drink? Or the teen sneaking out to party with their friends?
“Addiction comes in many shapes and sizes. Social Media is just one of the latest versions of addiction.”
Addiction comes in many shapes and sizes. Social Media is just one of the latest versions of addiction. Most addictions actually start quite early in life. Many substance addicts have experienced some kind of drug or alcohol by the age of seven or eight. These days, how many children are more proficient with a phone than their parents by that age? That’s not to say that it is wrong for young children to be exposed to phones and devices. But as parents, we need to make sure that we are closely monitoring their usage – before it becomes unhealthy.
Once your child reaches their teen years, it can start to get difficult to monitor their usage. If you take your teen’s phone or electronic device away, even for a day, how do they react? And how about Snapchat, and all the other apps like Instagram that our teens spend hours on each day? Can they really do without them? Can they go a full week without going on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter? The answers to questions like these can be a good indication of whether or not your child’s social media use is approaching addiction.
What is Addiction?
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine addiction is characterized by:
- The inability to consistently abstain from whatever the device or substance may be
- Impairment of behavior control
- No recognition that there is something wrong with their behavior and relationships
- A dysfunctional emotional response (anger/rage, crying, etc.)
Again, how does your teen respond when that device or substance is taken away?
Some of these behaviors are “normal” for teens, they are exploring the world, testing boundaries and perceiving the world outside of their family as more important. But how does social media affect teenagers? When it comes to addiction our brain gets rewired to seek the reward above anything else – time on an electronic device, getting the next fix/hit. It makes the ability to stay away from those things near impossible. It also makes being able to recognize the effect of their behavior on other people almost non-existent.
So there it is – addiction. A very simplified version of what it is and what it looks like. This description doesn’t even come close to answering the why of someone becoming an addict. Hurt, trauma, or some event in a person’s life can open the door for a device, or substance to be used to cover the pain. But that is a whole other topic in and of itself.
Predators on Social Media
Another aspect of social media that many parents don’t think about is: who is talking to your child? Believe it or not, there are predators on social media who are looking to take advantage of vulnerable children. These predators are extremely good at gaining the trust of children, sometimes over many months, and then luring them into a compromising position. At Teen Rescue, we have encountered many children who have had this happen to them. Some of them were even forced into sex trafficking by someone they met over social media.
You may be thinking that this is an unlikely scenario, but it is happening more and more these days. Every parent teaches their children at a young age not to talk to strangers. But there is an inherent feeling of safety a child has when talking to someone through social media. It is at a distance, the child can’t see the person, the person can’t see them. That sense of “stranger-danger” just isn’t there.
It is extremely important that parents warn their children about being careful who they talk to on the internet. And especially about posting any personal information about themselves, publicly or privately, on social media.
Managing Healthy Social Media Use
So now comes the hard part. How do we effectively manage our children’s social media usage? Setting boundaries is the first step. Now, this is where you should probably expect to get some pushback from your child. Especially if they have gotten used to using their social media without boundaries. However, it is important for them to remember that having a phone and any associated social media is not a right – it is a privilege. If that privilege is not being used in a healthy or appropriate manner, there needs to be a change.
“It is important for them to remember that having a phone and any associated social media is not a right – it is a privilege.”
Every child and family is different, so there is not a “one size fits all” approach to the boundaries you set. But generally, you will want to look at setting two types of boundaries: time and privacy.
Time is pretty self-explanatory. You decide how much time you want your child to be using social media. Also think about what times of day you want them to be using it. For example, if they are struggling with their grades, think about blocking out a couples hours after school so that they can focus on their homework without distraction. Or if they are not getting enough sleep, think about no social media after a certain time at night. The purpose is not to be restrictive, but to set boundaries that will help prevent social media from interfering with other areas of their life.
Privacy can get a little more complicated, but it is extremely important for making sure your child’s social media usage is appropriate and safe. Most teenagers are going to assume that they have a right to privacy from you on their social media accounts. This is an assumption that you should correct as soon as possible. Again, social media is a privilege that you allow them to have.
The area where most teens get into trouble is posting things that they shouldn’t. If they know that you have access to their accounts, and are able to monitor what they post, it will cause them to think twice about what they are posting. And that is really what you want. You want to make sure your child is thinking before they post.
It is also important for you to be able to see who is talking to them. If a stranger starts talking to a child in a public setting, most parents will want to know who is talking to their child and why. They will want to know if that person is safe for their child to be talking to. There is no reason this should be any different in a digital setting.
As parents, we have a responsibility to protect our children. Not only from others, but also from themselves. Setting a boundary that you need to have access to all of your child’s social media accounts is something that every parent should seriously consider.
Protecting Your Children From the Dangers of Social Media
Communicating with your kids is one of the most important thing that you can do about the dangers of social media. Try to help them to understand that you are not enforcing restrictions because you don’t trust them. You are setting boundaries to help protect them and make sure that they are successful in all areas of their life. Again, there is nothing wrong with social media in and of itself. But parents need to be aware of the risks and dangers of social media. And as parents, we should be diligent in teaching our children about these dangers.
As responsible parents, we all teach our children about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. But we should also teach them about social media addiction. We teach them not to talk to strangers. But we should also teach them about the dangers of talking to strangers online. And we all teach them to look both ways before crossing the street. In the same way, we need to teach them to “look both ways” before posting something they may later regret.