Family Talk: Parents need a grip on kids’ social media
Did you have a smartphone or other social media device when you were a kid?
I know I didn't. Heck, I was lucky if I got to use the wall-mounted rotary phone that hung in our kitchen. So, if you didn't engage with social media as a kid, you have no clue. Literally, no clue.
You have no clue about the fact that media may be killing our kids. Not with absorbed radiation but with unhealthy hyper social awareness. Put plainly, media is increasing kids' awareness of each other in detrimental ways. Awareness of bullies. Of parties they didn't get invited to. Of instant awareness of other kids' cool experiences or possessions. Some contend media is producing a host of mental health issues for our kids.
Dr. Jean Twenge, wrote a book entitled "iGen, Why Today's Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood." The title alone ought to scare us.
Twenge has been doing research for more than two decades on generational differences and has noted a seismic shift in the 2011-2015 time frame. This is the year when ownership of iPhones went over the 50 percent mark. During this era Twenge observed:
• A significant increase in reports that kids felt lonely, sad, helpless and useless.
• A 50 percent increase in a clinical level depression among children and teens.
• A substantial increase in the teen suicide rate.
Here's what Twenge says on her website:
Born after 1995, iGen is the first generation to spend their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone. With social media and texting replacing other activities, iGen spends less time with their friends in person — perhaps why they are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness ... iGen is also growing up more slowly than previous generations: eighteen-year-olds look and act like fifteen-year-olds used to.
Twenge's findings ought to scare us more than her book title.
But parents' fears should prompt thoughtful action. And that action should be guided by a strategic media plan for how and when kids can use social media. But how do you put something like that together? Fortunately, someone assembled an online template for us.
Healthychildren.org has created a tool you can use to customize your own media plan for however many children of whatever age there are in your family. It includes topics such as:
• Screen free zones (areas where our family doesn't use online devices).
• Screen free times (times when we simply don't use media).
• Device curfews (maybe the kids' devices get recharged, overnight, in the parents' bedroom, not their own).
• Balancing online and offline time (promoting the benefits of face-to-face time).
• Manners and being a good “digital citizen” (e.g. no bullying, no cellphone usage at the dinner table).
• Safety, sleep, and exercise (staying healthy in every way).
I don't have children at home, but I tried out the template as if I still had kids under my roof and found it to be a practical and helpful guide. I would encourage you to try it with your own children and (if you're brave) your grandchildren.
Dealing with this important issue is not for the faint of heart. But given the stakes, we have to do more than simply wring our hands. We have to get a grip on our kids' social media. Their lives may depend on it.
Jim Priest is CEO of Sunbeam Family Services and can be reached at email@example.com.