Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Opinion: Angela Liddle: How parents can help their children resist social media

Technology will always make sure that parenting will never be easy. More than half of parents surveyed in a recent Pew Research study said that social media makes parenting harder than it was 20 years ago.

The reasons are well-known: Almost three-fourths of kids see sexual or violent content while doing their homework. One-fifth of kids from 10 to 17 have been approached or sexually solicited while online. Almost half of children in fourth to eighth grade have spoken with a stranger online.

This has concerned lawmakers across the country enough to introduce legislation to ban platforms or restrict teens and adolescents from registering social media accounts. While I applaud lawmakers for wanting to protect kids online, legislation alone is not going to protect our kids. It’s up to us as parents and guardians to help our kids foster positive digital behaviors.

Bans won’t stop access

The past year has seen lawmakers at the state and federal levels take on large social media companies. More than 30 states to date have banned TikTok from being installed on state-issued devices, while U.S. House Republicans have introduced legislation to ban children under the age of 16 from using social media.

In Pennsylvania, state Sens. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) and Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) in May introduced bipartisan legislation to give parents more control over their children’s access to social media platforms. The proposal requires anyone under 16 to receive a parent or guardian’s consent before they can open a social media account.

School districts across the country — including Pittsburgh Public Schools, Seneca Valley, Apollo Ridge, Allegheny Valley and Penn Hills — have sued social media companies, alleging they caused mental health problems for students. The Pittsburgh school district filed a suit in federal court in April against Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube. The suit claimed these companies induced “young people to compulsively use their services,” causing mental health problems the school districts have to address.

We cannot ban social media platforms and expect the problems to go away. Today’s parents and guardians are shepherding the most technologically advanced generation, as today’s teens and kids do not remember life without social media. And a parent or authority figure telling a child or teen to use social media carefully is like handing them the keys to a racing car without any driving lessons.

Encourage healthy behaviors

Studies show that children spend more time than ever on screens and social media. Teenagers alone average nearly nine hours per day on their devices, according to a 2022 Common Sense Media report, while children ages 8 to 12 average more than five hours per day on their devices.

Experts worry that this constant usage of screens and social media could harm the mental health of children and adolescents. The Office of the U.S. Surgeon General in a May advisory stated that the office “cannot conclude social media is sufficiently safe for children and adolescents” due to a lack of evidence.

Days before Sens. Hughes and Phillips-Hill introduced their legislation, the American Psychological Association issued a healthy advisory on social media use in adolescence. The advisory outlines 10 recommendations, including requiring young people to be trained on how to properly use social media.

“Social media offers a powerful opportunity for socialization of specific attitudes and behaviors, encouraging adolescents to follow the opinions and prosocial acts of others,” the APA noted. “The discussion of healthy behaviors online can promote or reinforce positive offline activity and healthy outcomes.”

If we don’t help our children to use digital technologies in safe, healthy ways, then others may teach them how to do the opposite.

Leading by example

Parents must  “guide their kids through the digital universe rather than attempt to lock them out of it,” as “Growing Up in Public” author Devorah Heitner told journalist Maureen Downey.

To do that, we must be mentors and monitors at the same time. And that may require us adults to examine how much we use our devices and browse social media.

Kids have a penchant for mimicking parental behaviors, as law professor Stacey Steinberg noted in The Washington Post, “Children model the behavior of their parents, and when parents constantly share personal details about their children’s lives, and then monitor their posts for likes and followers, children take note.”

If we don’t like how our children use these technologies, then let us first examine our own behaviors to set a better example. The technology is here for good, and while it may make parenting difficult at times, we can make sure the users of tomorrow are better equipped than we were when we started using social media.

Angela Liddle is president and CEO of the Pa Family Support Alliance, which has created the Family Digital Wellness initiative.

From Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 20, 2023

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