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Social Media: Tips for Safe and Meaningful Use

January 31, 2019 | by Professor Naomi Nechama Klapper, LMHC, MA

Parents must teach their children how to properly use this potentially dangerous technology.

Facebook. WhatsApp. Instagram. Twitter. Snapchat. For parents who didn’t grow up in the social networking age, helping their children navigate this ubiquitous technology can be daunting. But there is no putting this genie back in the bottle; it is how people communicate these days – especially young people.

Many children begin to use social media when they are too immature to understand its potential pitfalls. It is therefore crucial to educate our children on its positive use and redirect its negative use at the time when they are just starting to use this technology.

According to the latest research, the average user is on social media for an hour a day or 30 quick visits a day. Anything above that level of use has been shown to correlate to increased anxiety and/or depression.

Here are some tips so parents can help their tweens form healthy relationships with this technology from the start and avoid danger zones.

1. Place limits on the amount of time your child is on social media. We routinely and automatically compare ourselves to other people. Yet the continuous comparison to other people’s lives – which social media encourages – only makes people feel badly about themselves. Surprisingly, even comparing ourselves online to those whose lives or choices seem worse than ours, when done excessively, can increase negative feelings about our own lives.

Work with your child to establish a realistic and healthy time frame for daily usage. If self-monitoring is difficult (and it often is, since websites and apps are specifically designed so users lose track of time) installing apps that limit time spent on the internet may be helpful.

2. Talk openly with your teen about social media and the feelings associated with its use. Social media presents a highly idealized representation of life. It is easy to forget that the images people post of themselves partying with friends, shopping, and going on vacation are often highly curated and don’t represent a person’s day-to-day reality. And often the images that are posted are the best from many taken and photoshopped. No one posts images of themselves bored on their couch or arguing with their friends. This misconception can leave one assuming everyone else is living a better, more exciting, and more fun life.

Adolescents are especially susceptible to this fallacy because their self-esteem at this age is usually more vulnerable. If your child is already experiencing anxiety, such as social anxiety, research shows they are in even more in danger of viewing these carefully crafted, but not quite true, presentations as reality, since their emotions distort their ability to judge things accurately. Continually remind your child of this misconception. In addition, continue to work with him or her to foster a positive sense of self that doesn’t require validation from an online world.

3. Have ongoing discussions about using social media and create ground rules. Parents should be involved in guiding their children when setting up an account and installing privacy restrictions. They should also review their child’s online friends list and make sure they are only connected to people they know in real life. It is unfortunately all too common and all too easy for someone to pretend to be someone they are not online.

In addition, parents should talk with teens about what type of content is appropriate to post and what is not. Remind them that once something is posted online, it lives there forever, and they no longer have control over who sees it. Any future employer, potential date, yeshiva, or graduate school can find anything you have ever posted online.

But just telling children and tweens this can be too esoteric. Provide real-life examples of a public figure whose “digital footprint” came back to haunt them to really drive the point home.

4. Help your children form a “purposeful relationship” with social media. Social media can be a useful way to explore your interests and passions and to stay connected with friends and family both near and far. But it is not a replacement for meaningful, real-life friendships. Children cannot learn the necessary skills for social interaction from their online friendships. Make sure your children keep up with friends as much in in real life as they do online.

Also encourage your children to establish boundaries that are true to how they act in real life. Teach your children to ask themselves: “Would I say this in person?” If the answer is no – that it would be too rude or risqué – it is not appropriate to say online.

Remind your child that she doesn’t have to conform to anyone else’s expectations of usage. Even if friends spend hours each day online, it doesn’t mean she needs to do so. Similarly, if a friend sends pictures of themselves, your child needn’t feel the pressure to reciprocate.

Research demonstrates that children often feel badly about themselves for the sinkhole of time they have spent online, or their lack of self-control when visiting sites and posting pictures. Having parental controls that block inappropriate sites and apps that limit their time can help them navigate their new freedoms with safe boundaries.

5. Teach by example and be a knowledgeable resource

Children learn not by what we say, but by what we do. They will observe how dependent you are on social media and model their own usage accordingly. So limit your own social media usage and demonstrate having purposeful relationships. Participate in offline activities that foster real-world relationships.

Most importantly, maintain open communication so your children will see you as a credible resource when they have concerns with their own social media usage (i.e. someone they don’t know contacts them online and it feels scared uncomfortable, or a classmate is cyberbullying them). By proactively discussing social media with them, you will be viewed as a knowledgeable and reliable resource, which makes it more likely they will seek your guidance if anything upsetting happens.

We can use social media to stay connected with those whose paths we have crossed in life. But nobody should confuse these online connections with having deep, meaningful social interactions. Telling everyone your happy news on social media is no replacement for celebrating this same occasion with a few very close friends. Teaching our children the life tools to safely navigate social media will allow them to gain all the benefits of this technology without succumbing to its disadvantages.

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