Social Distortion

How to keep your kids grounded in the digital age

By Dwain Hebda

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Troy Urquhart, head of Upper School at Episcopal Collegiate School in Little Rock, minces his words when describing the suggested strategies parents offer for controlling their children’s social media use.

“One of the questions that we get sometimes from parents is, ‘Well, shouldn’t we just keep our kids off social media? Shouldn’t we just not let them use Snapchat or Instagram or whatever it is?’” he said. “My answer to that is, this isn’t a question of whether social media is good or evil. It just is. Digital communication is going to exist.”

It’s hard to imagine the parent who could legitimately enforce an absolute ban on social media, given the many on-ramps to the information superhighway that exist. Whether on their own handhelds, a friend’s device or logging on in the friendly confines of the local library, it’s nearly impossible to keep children shielded from some form of social media. This is particularly true when you consider the number of companies, institutions and even educators who communicate partially or totally by email, which technically falls under the social media header.

While there’s an obvious difference between swapping emails with a teacher during a snow day and the kind of social media use that affects grades, social development and even mental health, the latter is precisely what is happening in startling numbers among children and young people. 

“Social media use has skyrocketed over the past few years. There are surveys that have estimated that kids now spend between 50 and 60 hours a week on some type of device, some type of screen time,” said Tiffany Howell, pediatric psychologist with Arkansas Children’s Hospital. “That, of course, can be detrimental to the other four senses that are being neglected. 

Not only that, but other dangers accompany spending too much time in cyberspace, from opening oneself up to predators to negative comments from peers.

“The three biggest issues I see from too much social media or being glued to it includes bullying that they are receiving or giving,” said Katie Walker with Chenal Family Therapy in North Little Rock. “The second one that is really common that parents often forget about or think it won’t happen to their kids is how they accidentally get addicted to porn through social media.”

“And the third one is, it can lead to an increase in depression due to what they see on social media. People take a picture, they filter it and then they put it online and give this perception to others that their peers or their friends have these great lives. It’s this false pretense which can lead kids to high anxiety, issues with negative body image and depression.”

What’s more, there’s evidence to suggest that social media usage is not the teenage fad that some parents think it is. 

“The earlier you introduce video time or any kind of media, the more difficult it is for people to put it down as adults,” Howell said. “If a kid is constantly playing video games, whenever they reach adulthood it’s almost like an addiction and it’s harder for them to give up in the young adult years. So no, this is not something they’ll just outgrow.”

For this reason, some schools have begun to address social media usage either as a health issue or, in the case of Episcopal, a sociological one.

“If our position were to be one that says, ‘Thou shalt not,’ and prohibit it, we’re not equipping students to live in that world as adults when they leave here,” Urquhart said. “We need to make sure they understand, certainly, what are some of the risks that are involved, but more than that, what’s the appropriate use?”

To do this, the school has partnered with the Social Institute, a North Carolina-based program that helps parents and students understand the positive and useful elements of social media and defines and reinforces correct behaviors. After a successful first year last year, Episcopal signed on for three more years of the curriculum, which starts in the fourth grade. 

“I think this is an issue that schools are going to have to work with forever because we never know what’s going to happen with technology and how that’s going to evolve,” Urquhart said. “It’s an issue of citizenshi; it’s an issue of how we relate to other people; it’s an issue of how we present ourselves. We want to make sure students are really equipped to do that.”

Managing Social Media

Consider the following suggestions from Tiffany Howell and Katie Walker for setting limits on your child’s social media use.

1. No Technology In the Kid’s Room
Allowing young people to have devices in their room is a recipe for disaster. Not only can you not monitor usage, but some studies say screen time affects melatonin levels and thus, your child’s ability to sleep.

“Don’t let them have the tablet, computer or cell phone in their room at night, especially under the age of 15, because they just don’t have the ability to not engage,” Howell said. “Also try to eliminate all screen time within an hour of bedtime so it doesn’t interfere with their release of melatonin.”

2. Charge In Public
On a related note, Walker says phone charging should happen in the open, too. 

“There needs to be a public space where, when it’s bedtime, you plug your phone up in the kitchen or wherever and then you go to bed,” she said. “There is too much temptation and too much availability to children to have the whole world sitting right next to them.”

3. Be a Friend—Literally
It’s non-negotiable whether parents should have access to their kids’ social media accounts. They should. Period.

“Parents should have an open agreement with their kids that they will be checking in on the social media use and what’s posted and what’s said,” Howell said. “And parents must have access to passwords at all times.”

4. Know How This Thing Works
Parents should be familiar enough with platforms to check their kids’ privacy settings and browser, as well as help them understand the importance of limiting their social media circle.

“A number one rule I give my clients is, you don’t let people follow you or you don’t follow people who aren’t your friends,” Walker said. “There also needs to be random checkups by parents to see who their kids are following and what kind of pages they are watching.”