Social media is a staple these days for kids and teens, which is why pediatricians and mental health experts say it’s more important than ever for parents to dial in to their children’s life online.

“While there are some benefits to engaging with social media, including the ability to stay connected with friends, it can come with risks,” says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw with Eugene Pediatric Associates. “Kids may intentionally or accidentally overshare personal information, be exposed to harmful or inappropriate content, and even experience cyberbullying. I encourage parents to pay attention to what their kids are doing online and to help them create some healthy limits when it comes to their devices.”

Social media by the numbers
In a 2018 poll conducted by Common Sense Media, about 90% of teens surveyed said they regularly use social media and 78% of teens said they check their digital devices hourly. Younger children are also increasingly exposed to social media with an estimated 39% of kids getting their first online account between 10-12 years old, and 11% before age 10.

“What we know from scientific research is that the number of hours per day a child spends on their devices and on social media is connected to the significant rise we are seeing in anxiety and depression affecting kids and teens,” Dr. Bradshaw says.

The impact of technology
Helping teens and kids set limits on the amount of time they spend online, and on their devices, can help protect their mental and physical health in the following areas:

  • Depression and anxiety: Studies show that reducing the time spent on electronic devices by just a half-hour per day can significantly reduce symptoms, including feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • Sleep disturbances: Using social media in bed at night has been shown to increase the likelihood of anxiety, insomnia and shorter durations of quality sleep.
  • Stress: Researchers have identified a connection between higher stress levels and checking social media posts often throughout the day.

“It can be really challenging for a lot of us parents that are not nearly as tech-savvy as our children. Many parents aren’t even aware of what the current platforms are that our kids are using and how those platforms work,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “Take the time to learn. Read about or watch YouTube videos on how these sites operate and why kids are using them.”

She offers these additional tips to parents:

  • Create no-phone zones, particularly at mealtimes and in the bedroom before bedtime.
  • Make it a rule that kids dock their phones in your bedroom at night.
  • Follow your kids’ social media accounts with an agreement about whether you will or won’t engage with their posts.
  • Keep computers in public areas of the home.
  • Set parental controls on internet access to age-appropriate sites.
  • Help your kids turn off location sharing on their apps.
  • Instruct them not to share important information including addresses or dates when your family is leaving town.

Remind your kids that anything they post on social media does not go away. “Many employers, as well as colleges and universities, take a hard look at the social media history of prospective applicants, especially those who are applying for scholarships.”

Pay attention
Notice when your child’s behavior is changing in relation to what they are seeing or doing on their devices, including signs of sadness, anxiety or irritability, and bring it to their attention and talk about it. “Start that conversation with ‘I’m worried about you. What’s happening?’ and then listen really carefully,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “If you can’t get answers from your child, and you have concerns about their mental health, that’s a really great reason to see your pediatrician.”