OPINION: Focus on gains, not losses, when limiting kids’ social media

On a recent trip to the movie theater, my viewing of the latest Marvel flick was distracted by a glowing white light in my peripheral vision. Despite the on-screen exhortations asking the audience to limit cellphone usage, an adolescent seated in the row below spent most of the 2.5-hour film on her phone, scrolling through a certain addictive social media platform.

If the adult seated next to her had a problem spending $17 for a child to sit in a theater and scroll through social media, she never said anything to the teen.

This month, the American Psychological Association issued a health advisory warning parents that they need to monitor their children’s social media usage, particularly kids 10 to 14 years old.

Social media can be good for some children if it promotes healthy socialization, such as connecting those who feel socially isolated. But a growing body of research tells us that too much social media in early adolescence can encourage maladaptive behaviors and lead to depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders. Kids may seek connection on social media but sometimes end up feeling alone, and the lack of face-to-face engagement can translate into a lack of social skills.

“They feel distracted and are picking up the phone without even thinking about it,” said Jody Baumstein, a child advocacy program specialist for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA). “They are not present or in the moment. It is causing them to not enjoy interactions that used to be enjoyable.”

We know social media is designed to be addictive, but the data relating to young people is frightening. Parents have only a little help in the fight to keep children safe in the digital world.

“It is a huge burden on parents because the technology is constantly evolving. We are set up to fail,” Baumstein said.

As Baumstein notes, everyone from caregivers to platform creators to legislators, whether they are parents or not, needs to do more thinking about the psychological well-being of kids when it comes to social media usage.

In February, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said that the age for social media use should be older than 13 and that platforms need to be more transparent about the impact of social media on the mental health of children.

Recently, CHOA conducted a test. Staffers wanted to see how a social media user’s age affects what content shows up in that person’s feed. On one platform, when the user age was lowered to under 18, sexually suggestive content actually increased, said Angie Boy, who oversees education and community training for the hospital system’s Stephanie V. Blank Center for Safe and Healthy Children.

Boy said she has a firm rule for her daughter: No social media use until age 16. She spells out what her daughter can and can’t do on her phone and the consequences if she violates those rules. They both sign a “contract” and review it a few times a year, in case it needs to be revised, she said. In addition, they have tech-free family nights, no cellphones allowed.

“One of the best things you can do is sit down and have a conversation as a family about what your concerns are and why you are concerned,” Boy said. “It needs to be a two-way street, especially if your child is already utilizing technology and you want to put up barriers and boundaries. … You don’t want a situation where they may be hiding what they are doing.”

There are some resources for parents who need more support, specifically apps that help you help your child by limiting screen time or monitoring content. One such app, Canopy, uses artificial intelligence to track and blur inappropriate images.

It automatically blocks explicit content and can detect a possible sexting situation, alerting parents.

“This is AI that really protects children’s mental health,” said Yaron Litwin, CMO at Canopy and parent of an 11-year-old. “Parents say when they get the alerts, they see it as an opportunity to have conversations.”

Parents should explain to kids that limits on social media use are not a punishment. They should encourage teens to focus on what they gain by curtailing social media use rather than on what they lose, Baumstein said.

Not unlike one of those parental control apps, parents in real life must hover in the background of their children’s social media lives.

“We need to think about how we equip kids to think critically, pay attention and protect themselves by deciding what feels right and what doesn’t,” said Baumstein. “We are working against something really powerful. (Social media) is not designed for our well-being.”

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.