How to Protect Your Kids From Social Media Risks

May 27, 2021

Just a generation ago, the biggest tech issue parents and caregivers faced was figuring out how to unglue their kids from the TV. Now that smartphones and tablets have become a standard part of family life –– and social media is increasingly catering to younger kids –– parents are tasked with navigating the uncharted waters of a whole new, and much more personal, kind of media consumption.

Social media use has its perks, even for kids –– especially during the pandemic, when we all had to find creative ways to stay connected. But as younger and younger children start logging on, we all have a responsibility to protect them from the potential risks. 

At Brightline, we’re all about empowering parents and caregivers with agency to make healthy choices for the whole family. Here’s what you need to know about reaping the benefits of online connection while keeping your kids safe and mentally healthy.

Is social media harmful for kids?

Attending child and adolescent psychiatrist at Cambridge Health Alliance, Dr. Meredith E. Gansner, says a social media experience isn’t one size fits all –– engagement with social media can have both positive and negative effects for the same child. 

We’ve got a pretty clear understanding of social media’s benefits. Chatting with friends, for example, can boost kids’ feelings of connection and belonging. And recent research on nine and ten-year-old-children’s brain development links greater social media use to positive effects like more physical activity, less family conflict, and fewer sleep problems. Surprising, right? (It’s worth noting that the same research linked a few detrimental effects to more TV and video game time.)

The jury is still out about how social media negatively impacts children. Researchers are actively studying negative effects like social anxiety as a result of digital media substituting for in-person interactions, the effects of tech-based social comparison, and anxiety, depression, and suicide as a result of cyberbullying, to name a few. 

We know teens who use social media may be at a higher risk for anxiety and depression, and too much social media may also impact adolescents’ attention spans, even contributing to a risk for ADHD. Because they’re still developing, kids aren’t able to self-regulate and may succumb to peer pressure online. According to Dr. Gansner, children on the brink of adolescence may be especially vulnerable to social media risks, since they’re just entering a developmental stage where they piece together who they are. But these effects aren’t universal.

You know your child, and you’re in charge of setting your family’s routines. If you are deliberating whether your child needs to reduce their social media use, then you should probably trust your intuition. If you’re not happy about how social media is affecting your kids or your overall family dynamic, it makes complete sense to consider making a change.

How do I limit my kids’ time on social media?

As parents and caregivers, it’s our job to promote our kids’ mental health and encourage healthy development –– and sometimes, that means setting limits. There are some black-and-white guidelines. 

According to Dr. Gansner, for example, children under age 13 should not have unsupervised social media access. If parents and caregivers choose to let their younger children use social media, it’s highly recommended that they navigate social media with their children, as opposed to letting them engage solo. If a caregiver wouldn’t let their young child socialize with strangers in the non-virtual world, the same care should be taken on social media, where risk of stumbling onto age-inappropriate content is not insignificant.  

Keeping everybody in the family on the same page can motivate positive behavior, so I recommend creating a whole-family routine for social media. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a helpful, easy-to-use tool for creating a family media plan.

Many parents (and kids) find it very difficult to completely stop their child’s social media use. One reason, Dr. Gansner says, is that many kids unconsciously turn to social media as a coping mechanism. Before you cut your child off, consider stressors that might be impacting them (and, if needed, enlisting some behavioral health support). 

If you’re ready to make changes, don’t start with the device! Try to promote positive behaviors in more doable ways first, like asking your kids to clean their rooms or setting the table every night for dinner. Use lots of praise and positive reinforcement. Then, as they learn how to cooperate with your requests and limits, begin setting basic boundaries around social media –– for example, maybe you won’t allow devices at the dinner table or you ask everyone to turn off phones after 7 PM. 

Whether you want to reduce social media use or remove it from your child’s life altogether, keep in mind you’ll have to replace that time with something else –– they’ll need something to do during the time frames they normally scroll through Instagram or TikTok. 

If your kids are normally on their phones when you’re scrambling to prepare dinner after work, don’t expect them to be excited about getting a head start on their homework or helping with meal prep instead. Try swapping out those 60 minutes with something your kids will actually look forward to –– for example, some one-on-one time with someone they love or a new outdoor activity. If needed, add in some other type of screen time you’re more comfortable with, like a movie, show, or educational game.

And keep in mind it’s a lot easier to set boundaries earlier than change your expectations later. If you think your child is old enough to have access to social media platforms, Dr. Gansner suggests creating clear expectations about safe online behavior, duration and time of use, and concrete consequences if a child doesn’t follow expectations. "The earlier that parents and caregivers incorporate media planning into their child's relationship with digital media, the easier the plan will be to adapt as children age and want to use more social media platforms more frequently,” she says.

When should I be worried about my kid on social media?

If your child has vulnerabilities to begin with, like anxiety, depression, or impulsive behaviors, you might need to monitor their social media time more carefully. It might be time to set stricter limits or seek support from a behavioral health expert, for example, if your child takes online interactions extremely personally or sends inappropriate pictures or texts.

As Dr. Gansner mentioned, children who are becoming adolescents may be vulnerable to conceptualizing their identity based on social media presence alone –– for example, developing self-esteem based on “likes” rather than using social media to learn about or share an already beloved pastime. If you notice your child struggling in this way, consider implementing boundaries or having a conversation about the role of social media. 

Another time to be concerned is if your child’s social media use interferes with other parts of their lives, or if it’s disrupting family routines. Boundaries could be helpful if your kids are staying up too late and they’re exhausted the next day, they’re missing homework deadlines, or they don’t want to be part of any family activities. Keep in mind as kids get older, it’s normal for them to skip out on dinner or whine about family movie night. The important thing is to keep an eye out for changes from your child’s baseline behaviors. 

Parenting in the social media age can be tough, and we’re figuring it all out with you. If you need some support in encouraging behavior changes or managing your child’s mental health, we’ll do what we can to help you build a brighter future!

Written by

Dr. David Grodberg

David is a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist and Brightline’s Chief Medical Officer. He has over 20 years of clinical experience providing evaluation and treatment for children, adolescents, and their families across many conditions and levels of care. David is currently a faculty member at the Yale School of Medicine and served as medical director of the Yale Child Study Center Outpatient Clinic. Among his many contributions to the field, David developed the Autism Mental Status Exam (AMSE), which is a brief and free diagnostic assessment for Autism Spectrum Disorder used globally. Much of his work at Yale has focused on using technology to improve the way pediatric behavioral health care is delivered.