Setting Boundaries for Your Social Media–Enthralled Kids (and Self)
Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson isn’t just a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital — where she doubles as the resident digital media expert — she’s also a mom with two kids of her own, ages nine and 11.
That means she understands the struggle to create healthy boundaries for social media as a doctor, a professional, a parent and a social media user herself. What makes it especially challenging is that social media is compounded by the technology that fits in the palm of your hand. In fact, stats from the Pew Research Center suggest that 95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45 percent say they are online “almost constantly.”
Still, there are ways to manage your child's relationship with smartphones and social media. Here are tips from Swanson that can help get you started.
Remember, You’re on the Same Side
“Even teens are worried they spend too much time on their phones,” reads one headline — of many — that emerged upon the publication of an August 2018 Pew Research Center report on teens and their online behavior.
In it, Pew reports that more than 90 percent of teens say spending too much time online is a problem, 60 percent go on to say it’s a “major” problem and 41 percent say they overdo it on social media. More than half of teens say their parents are also wildly distracted by their cellphones. “Everybody is feeling this stress,” explains Swanson.
The good news is that both sides are also trying to do something about it — 52 percent of U.S. teens report taking steps to cut back on their mobile phone use, and 57 percent have tried to limit their use of social media.
The Age for Social Media Accounts Is 13
If you have a younger tween begging for a social media account, let the law prevail: They’re supposed to wait until age 13 — and for good reason.“I believe in the genesis and history of the age 13,” says Swanson.
That history dates back to COPPA — the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act — enacted 20 years ago to keep websites from collecting personal information online from a child under 13 years of age. Those terms now govern all sorts of platforms, from MySpace to WhatsApp. “I don’t want corporations to monitor my kids’ use,” she says.
On top of that, think about Cambridge Analytica, says Swanson. The public is more aware, now, that what they do online is not only being watched and monetized, but also used to manipulate beliefs and opinions, and sow social discord.
Model Good Behavior
“We have to figure out ways to be successful with modeling,” says Swanson.
And this, she admits, is the hardest part. “This is the space, in parenthood, that most of us feel the worst at. The reason being is that these devices are designed to take our attention and hold our attention.”
Who can resist? Simply being honest about the struggle and to verbalize your own strategies for managing the time you spend online, on your phone and on social media accounts can be an easy way to start the conversation with your teen. Same goes for setting some basic times and places where social media and smartphones are not welcome.
Make Meal Time Sacred
Swanson and her family practice #devicefreedinner. But any meal will do. “It can be the dinner table or breakfast. Whenever there is a meal together in a busy family, carve out time for an exchange of ideas, for touchpoints,” says Swanson.
And make it screen-free — from smartphones to TV. For Swanson’s own household, with two doctors on call, it’s a challenge — but a worthwhile one. “We need to be connected to our kids in real life,” she says.
Never Ever Text and Drive
One of the most vitally important places to model good behavior is in the car. Texting while driving is six times more likely to cause an accident than driving drunk. It’s just not worth the risk.
“Make the car a sanctuary again,” says Swanson. “Allow you and your children that time and space to talk. You can say, ‘If I’m not on my phone, then you’re not on your phone either.’”
No Blue Light Before Bed
Turn cellphones off or stow them away — ideally, somewhere not in the bedroom — at least an hour before bedtime. The blue light from the screen not only affects melatonin, your natural sleep hormone, but it disrupts the body's circadian rhythms.
It’s important for adults and especially huge for teens. Teens still need nine to 10 hours of sleep a night, explains Swanson, but their body clock naturally shifts from 8 or 9 o’clock to 10 or 11 o’clock, right around the time puberty commences. That makes getting those precious hours harder still. You don’t need the blue glow of a smartphone — or the incessant group texts and status updates — to make it worse.
Designate a Tech Station
For all involved, not just children, it’s useful to have a central landing pad for all devices — where they are stored when not in use, charged and relegated when there are other family activities that take precedence. It helps to be able to monitor smartphone, tablet and computer usage, which are the gateway to social media platforms, from a central location as well.
Also, consider making bedrooms a no man’s land for digital devices — theirs and your own.
The same Pew study from August 2018 also found that teens feel incredibly anxious when they’re separated from their phones. More than half (56 percent) associated the absence of their phones — and, one assumes, the ties to social media — with at least one of three emotions: loneliness, being upset or feeling anxious.
Like any source of anxiety, though, the way to address it is head on. “If you expose people to what they fear, repeatedly, then they know they can survive it,” says Swanson.
One way to do just that is regular digital detoxes. It can be a monthly event, where the whole family logs off on a Friday and doesn’t check social accounts or devices the whole weekend. “Then Monday, we’ll see if we like life any better,” says Swanson.
On a smaller scale, parents and children alike can take small bursts of time without checking for status updates. “Go to the store without your phone,” says Swanson, who follows her own advice. “I make myself do that, and then I ask, 'How does it feel when I’m not checking text messages between aisle one and aisle two?'”
Another, easy-to-manage tip is to find one hour (or more) each day to put the phone in airplane mode.
One Thing at a Time
“We don’t just want TV anymore. We’re not just on the computer. We’re on the computer and the phone. We’re watching TV and tweeting at the same time,” Swanson says. “Your brain can only do one thing at a time. So, if you’ve got a phone and a car, or you’ve got a phone and a person, it’s not that you're multitasking, it’s, for one second, I’m looking at you my love, then I’m looking over here at my email, and ping ponging between the two.”
Even when using social media, computers and smartphones with purpose — as Swanson does as part of her job — your attention is divided to an almost unmanageable degree. “My ability to compose, write, focus and react, it’s been fractured in a way,” she says.
Share Your Own Struggle
“Stop pretending that this is super easy,” says Swanson. “Internet addiction, smartphone-use addition, problematic media use — it’s all real. We are all a little bit more attached than we want to be.”
Talking about your own experience with that tension, how smartphones distract us or have more power over us than we’d like, is important with tweens and teens. And Swanson suggests that parents go into those conversations as a partner for kids, not the social media police.
Follow the Plan
The American Academy of Pediatrics, for which Swanson is a spokesperson, has an interactive online tool, called the Family Media Plan, to help parents set clear screen-time boundaries with their kids. Parents and kids read and agree to certain terms, and then print and post the agreement on the fridge. The plan pertains to all screens and includes not just agreements about when and how long, as one might expect, but also about manners — i.e., not looking at the phone or texting while talking with someone — and digital citizenship, which includes privacy and bullying.
“These are devices of privilege,” says Swanson, speaking about her own family. “You have to earn this by being good citizens.” Similarly, when you break a rule, there should be logical consequences.
Be Where They Are
“I think being in every network that your child is in is a smart move,” says Swanson. “Are your kids going to create ghost accounts? Yes, of course they are.”
But being on the platform helps you understand the nature of the community they are in, what risks to avoid and what each app or community might be good for, as well. Parents should also be checking chat logs, emails and what’s cached on the computer — and kids should know that their activities are monitored, too. Transparency is key.
Know That You Can’t Outsmart Them
Set reasonable expectations for your ability to keep up. “To be very frank, it’s hard to outsmart their use of new and novel technology,” says Swanson. “Kids have expansive facility and time to learn and adopt and tweak these tools for their own use.”
Talk About Online Life
We should be talking about our kids’ IRL experiences and their online experiences throughout their lifetime, says Swanson. Just as parents should be asking about friends and events at school, they can ask social media–minded questions as well.
Are you on SnapChat? Is anyone even on Facebook anymore? How do you feel when you’re on it? Who do you meet there? Does anyone make you laugh? Does anyone make you feel unsafe?
Talk About Mental Health
How a social media platform makes you feel is perhaps the most important of those questions.
In her own blog, Seattle Mama Doc, Swanson cites a study with sobering stats about smartphone use among eighth graders:
• Heavy users are 56 percent more likely to say they are unhappy
• 27 percent more likely to be depressed
• 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide
“We’re seeing a huge change for children when it comes to mental health,” says Swanson, citing rising rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation among teens. “Do I think device use is behind some of it? I do. Something happened in 2010 when the iPhone came into the world.”
Talk About Digital Footprints
Teens today live their lives online — for better or for worse. The pics-or-it-didn’t-happen ethos means that visual evidence is not just produced, but disseminated, often far and wide — and often in ways that the “owner” of the image never intended. Case in point: sexting.
Swanson wrote about our lifelong digital footprints a few years back, and it’s just as relevant today. “Remind them that things they say today could be accessed or read by a college admission officer, a future employer or a future friend. Remind them that details they share online may be retrievable forever. Show your child examples. Google and search with your children to demonstrate what you can find and the transparency that exists on the internet,” she writes.
Do Something Else
Nothing that magical happens on an iPad, Swanson says. It was a line she repeated from a recent blog post, in which she argues for the importance of play — and for the spirit of summer to continue, in some way, shape or form, well into the school year. “Play is important enough — especially as technology’s competition for play accelerates — that the American Academy of Pediatrics just published a clinical report dedicated to the importance of play,” she writes.
And at heart, whether it’s play or quality time or something else offline, it’s about creating compelling IRL experiences to share with your family, that have the emotional resonance to compete with social media and other distractions. “More play, more roaming, more resilience this year,” writes Swanson. “Yes, please.”