What your kids (and you) should know about how to use social media wisely

Most parents that I know have settled on an uneasy relationship between their children, social media, and digital media in general.  It doesn’t take deep reflection to understand that there are trade-offs to spending a lot of time staring at a screen:  less time reading, exercising, doing schoolwork, in-person time with friends (since when did “time with friends” need a qualifier?!), and all the other virtuous things that engaged parents want our kids to be doing.  More alarming is the growing evidence that digital media use can contribute to serious mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. 

It’s not just an issue for our children; bad digital media habits are common amongst adults as well, and most of us acknowledge at least some aspect of our smartphone relationship that should change.  I’ll admit that Covid-19 seclusion led me down a shadowed path to reconnect with old friends and acquaintances on Facebook, only to realize that all of them made more money, hadn’t aged, and were raising future Jeopardy and American Idol contestants.  This was not good for my self-esteem or my resolution to practice more gratitude.  So, I said goodbye to Facebook (again; well, for now…).

While smartphone and app companies are on their tenth generation or beyond, formal research on the personal and societal effects of this global, real-time market experiment is in its infancy.  What is emerging is not very reassuring.  I recently found an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggesting that frequent digital media use is contributing to ADHD-like symptoms in adolescents.  Yes, there is emerging evidence that all that time passively consuming digital media may actually be thwarting the development of your teen’s brain – specifically their ability to focus and concentrate.  Fortunately, teen brains are neuroplastic, meaning that they are still rapidly developing.  Presumably that means that the ill effects of digital media overuse can be reversed, though I’m not aware of any specific research on this.  And, of course, it’s not just about the amount of time spent on digital media, but also the content and its effect on identity formation, self-esteem, and a sense that the world is a scary place and getting worse (in the grand arc of history, there’s lots of evidence that things are actually very good and getting better, but that’s an entirely different topic).

As a parent of three sons (now 16, 18, and 21), this is not a new topic to me – or to any other parent of a young adult, teen, or tween.  My wife and I struggled with the decision to give our three sons smartphones when they started middle school and it’s been an ongoing project to do our best to manage their use ever since.  Then came Covid, school shutdowns, and the emergence of social bubbles.  While we were still worried about too much smartphone use – especially social media use – over time we started to realize just how important virtual access to friends was to our sons’ mental health.  And, to our surprise, how social media kept our sons connected to real friends – old and new, to each other, and to us.  Simply put, while social media presents some very real and very serious challenges for many teens and adults alike, it also is a gateway to a world of relationships and ideas – if used wisely.  Hence, the paradox of digital media. 

I worry, though, that we’ve settled into established patterns of use, both for our children and ourselves.  Meanwhile, the tech-lords and their platoons of earnest coders are busy rolling out new features and apps.  Next stop: the metaverse.  Instead of trusting that “the market” will figure it out, parents need to help their teens learn how to use digital media in ways that promote their well-being while avoiding the very real negative consequences that we are only starting to wrap our heads around.

Toward that end, I have been working with three research colleagues for the last few years to understand what it means to use digital media wisely (we are specifically focused on social media, but the line between social media and digital media is fuzzy, for teens in particular).  We began by reviewing the most recent research on social media use and its effects on well-being, followed by our own interviews with dozens of teens and young adults who self-reported either a healthy or unhealthy relationship with social media.  We’ve since surveyed hundreds of people across the country and, with the help of some really cool stats software and many friendly debates, we are closing in on the final version of a scale to measure “social media wisdom.”  Essentially, the scale is a set of behaviors (i.e., desired habits) that could help us all navigate the paradox of using a still-new technology in ways that promote our well-being while protecting against its real and significant risks.

The first set of habits is oriented around how people can use social media to actively promote their well-being. Specific habits include using social media to:

  • connect with people in ways that strengthen your real-world relationships
  • learn new things
  • savor meaningful moments in your life (through reflective or celebratory posts, for instance)
  • seek content or communities that help you feel connected to something greater than yourself
  • promote causes that you care about
  • follow accounts that present viewpoints and opinions that are different from your own
  • connect with content that is fun and pleasurable
  • connect with things you care deeply about

The second set of habits relate to avoiding the potential harm caused by social media; specifically, wise users of social media:

  • limit the amount of unnecessary time and attention social media takes up in their day
  • unfollow accounts that do not add significant value to their lives
  • take a break from social media if they notice that it is making them feel bad
  • are selective about the type of personal information they share on social media
  • avoid posting things if they notice they are doing so to try to get attention from others
  • consider how it might make others feel before posting something on social media
  • stop themselves when they notice they’re comparing themselves to others on social media
  • consider the motivations and credibility of the source before deciding what news/information posts they believe and share

Eventually, we hope to publish a formal scale to help people self-assess their social media habits.  Yet, as a dad, I realize that giving your child a survey and a summary score feels more like a judgment than a helpful nudge.  Instead, consider this a set of talking points for a conversation or more that you could have with your children.  Or, maybe start by reviewing the lists and thinking a bit about changes that you might want to make yourself first (they are watching us).  The key with wisdom, as always, is to be intentional, proactive and focused on well-being.  As long as you keep those in mind, you’re already on a better path.

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