Raising children in the digital age
A child psychotherapist offers practical tips for parents in guiding children’s use of social media
By Vivette Catipon
Social media and all the internet offerings that seduce young minds at such an alarming rate are here to stay. So what are parents to do?
According to a 2018 study, 94% of teens as young as 13 years old own some type of mobile device, and their use has doubled in the last six years. CNN reported in 2015 that teens spend about nine hours a day on the internet, so it’s no wonder teachers report that kids are coming to school tired and sleep deprived. Might the rise in depression among teens be related to this as well?
Whether it’s the latest video game frenzy, the YouTuber with the most followers, or the popular social media sites, we as parents need to take the time to understand what the attraction is for our child. We need to watch what they’re watching and engage them in conversation. Be genuinely curious about what interests them and make an effort to pitch another activity, one that doesn’t involve their electronics, but is equally gratifying. Explore their thoughts and share our opinion without being judgmental.
We must continue to nurture our relationship with our children and together create a healthy electronics diet that makes sense for our family. Then by all means, we have to do as we say and model the behavior we want in our children.
Children between the ages of 8–12 years old are beginning to wrestle with peer pressure. Know that they are also experimenting with how they want to present themselves with others and in social media. Take comfort in knowing that your child is just testing the waters, and you can help them discover who they are and want to be. Find a way to get to know your child’s social media persona.
Prohibiting your child from setting up their own social media account is not the answer. Instead help them develop their digital self.
In my clinical practice, therapy with middle school and high school students involves decreasing the gap between their digital self and their real self. The more they feel secure in who they are, the less they need to create a false self, one that conforms more to the social norms of the “friend group”. Tell your child often all the positive things he does and how you see him.
A case study
I am working with a 12-year-old girl whom I’ve known for a couple of years. She used to be painfully shy but became less so around the time she discovered her passion for art. About a year ago she went on instagram.com and snapchat.com and began posting some of her illustrations.
She soon gained several followers and that made her feel good. For sure, social media has the potential to connect people, where people feel inspired and enlivened by these virtual interactions.
However, we still need to encourage face-to-face relationships. My client began to feel sad because her real, day-to-day relationships were not as gratifying as her virtual relationships. So she spent more and more time on social media.
The Child Mind Institute’s 2018 Children’s Mental Health Report on anxiety in childhood and adolescence shows that 8th graders who spend 10 hours or more a week on social media are 56% more likely to report being unhappy than those who spend less time.
At this age, they do not yet have the maturity to sift through the complexities of human relationships. When a virtual friend “loved” her work but snubbed her in the hallway at school, it was confusing to her.
My client felt better when her family supported her artistic endeavors and even entered her work at the county fair where she won three awards. Now those are real “likes” and “thumbs up”!
The perils that face middle schoolers and even younger children, such as bullying, have been heightened by social media, which tells them 24/7 how to look, act, think and feel. YouTube is the most popular platform these days, and it appears that there is very little control over what your children have access to. I have a 10-year old client who has been bugging his mom for a pair of Adidas Yeezys, which start at $300 on Amazon.com.
When I heard the child say this, I immediately felt like telling the child how ridiculous of a want it was. But instead of urging mom to strongly tell him to forget about it, I responded by being genuinely curious about how he heard about these shoes. As it turns out this 10-year old follows the Ace Family on YouTube. The Ace Family has over 15 million followers and they chronicle their lives daily on that platform, and in one of the episodes their 6-year old son got this very same pair of shoes for Christmas.
This revelation led to a gentle discussion between mom and child that I facilitated. Of course this child and mom did not know that the Ace family probably received these shoes, and many more items, for free in exchange for featuring it on their YouTube channel. In the end, the child appeared to appreciate the fact that mom works three jobs to make ends meet and to provide him with the support he really needs like tutoring with Kumon.
What’s important to note here is that we must not be quick to judge our children when they bring up things they’re getting from social media or from their peers. Keeping the lines of communication open is the key, and so we must be mindful and restrain ourselves from quickly admonishing our children.
Assessing social media use
Once your child reaches middle school, the fact is they do listen more to their peers. Most of you probably try your best to influence who your child hangs out with. That’s good, but it’s not enough. It would be good to hang out with them too. Stick around, see what they like to do and talk about it. Be internet savvy, go on the internet sites your children are on, be informed, and figure out ways to gently talk with them about the values you want them to have.
I use a Social Media Assessment Form developed by Tobi B. Goldfus, LCSW-C, which gets at the child’s use of social media and how they feel about it. Generally, as a parent you would be concerned if the child is interested less and less in activities other than being “plugged in” with her electronics.
If your children haven’t been seduced by Fortnite (an online video game where players fight off together zombie-like creatures) surely you know someone who is. The link below provides vital information about this latest craze, including how chat rooms work and how to turn this feature off if necessary.
This guide is published by Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization that provides education and advocacy to families to promote safe technology and media for children. I recommend that you become a member, review the current trends and be informed. Children can seem mature and definitely more competent with technology than us sometimes, but we have to be in step with them in order to strengthen our relationship.
Find more information at commonsensemedia.org/pediatricians.
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