promoting healthy social media use
LUX BOND & GREEN
WITH COVID-19 ISOLATION, PARENTS WORKING FROM HOME AND KIDS ATTENDING SCHOOL ONLINE, SETTING LIMITS IS MORE DIFFICULT THAN EVER. By Jill Nilsen
If you’ve been around young people lately, you’ve most likely noticed a common accessory: a smartphone in hand. Whether it’s typing out a text message, posing for a “selfie” or filming a post for Snapchat or Instagram, for kids (and many adults), cell phones are a permanent fixture. Those of us who didn’t grow up with cell phones might be concerned this is a problem, yet our kids can’t imagine life without a phone. So, is concern about device use valid? How much social media is too much? How is technology shaping the identities of our young people? Dr. Linda Charmaraman is the director of the Youth, Media and Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW). She is focusing on these concerns with a National Institute of Health (NIH)-funded research study targeting middle-schoolaged students. WCW is a research and action institute focused on women and gender, driven by social change, and it’s located just down the street on the Wellesley College campus. According to Dr. Charmaraman, the study is trying to reach kids the first year they start on social media, which is usually around grade six at age 11 or 12. The average age a cell phone is obtained is at 10. “We need to talk with kids about social media before things get out of hand,” she said in a recent interview. “Kids want to document their lives,” she continued.
“They want to feel like they belong.” Social media is a way for them to express themselves and create an impression among their peers. Of course, there are positives and negatives associated with social media. But one thing is certain: Kids are using technology today more than ever, and it is here to stay. According to Pew Internet research, 95 percent of adolescents are now online, 88 percent have access to mobile phones, 81 percent use social media and 80 percent sleep with the phones in their bedrooms. Some are spending as much as 10 or 11 hours a day on their phones. Is this too much time? “There’s no set number of hours or type of content [regarding social media use],” Dr. Charmaraman noted. “It depends on the individual. Can he or she function normally without it?” If schoolwork is suffering due to excessive time spent on the computer or smart phone, then parents may need to set limits. Or if the child seems to be down or depressed after exposure to social media, that’s another red flag indicating that parents may need to step in and start a conversation about social media use to rule it out as a cause for the negative mood or feelings. When it comes to setting limits, there is no general rule, and parents seem to be all over the spectrum. Some exert a great deal of control with strict guidelines on usage, while others have no rules at all. With COV-
ID-19 isolation, parents working from home and kids attending school online, setting limits is more difficult than ever. Dr. Charmaraman shared that it really has to do with the quality of the content, not the quantity of time spent navigating. How is the time being used? We’re familiar with the negative effects of social media— cyber-bullying, inappropriate content, hateful messages—but interactions can be positive. Social media interactions can help kids cope with the stress of being isolated from their friends. Kids can support each other socially, receive a sense of belonging and even raise awareness about social issues. It can be tough for parents to understand their kid’s relationship to social media as most of them communicated with their peers in less sophisticated ways. Even tech-savvy parents may have trouble keeping up as the technology and popularity of sites are constantly evolving. Five years ago, the social media sites frequented by adolescents pretty much mimicked what their parents were using, but that’s not necessarily the case anymore. Today, WCW research indicates the top sites are YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram. Girls prefer House Party, Pinterest and TikTok, while boys like Twitch, a gaming app. In the spring of 2020, Snapchat was the most popular app and Tik Tok was second, which is no surprise given that both apps enable kids to