Navigating the Use of Smart Devices and Social Media with Your Child: An Article by Dr. Conley

Whether you have a toddler, tween or teenager, at some point during parenthood you’ve contemplated the relationship between smart devices, social media and your child. This topic is a growing concern, making headlines every day, and for good reason. In the following article, Dr. Conley shares associated risks and outlines how to approach usage with your child.

Most of us did not grow up with smart phones or any small handheld electronic device. For someone like me, born in 1969, I saw the development of the first computer, first GPS device and first mobile phone (mine was the size of a shoebox) and I was gradually able to adapt to each new innovation. The benefit of this gradual introduction to new technology is that I already had developed social skills, a sense of self-worth and an identity without the influence of social media. This is not the case for today’s youth. Although they have the benefit that today’s technology will be completely innate to them, they also are lacking the skills to utilize this technology without it impacting them emotionally and socially.

Today’s youth never had the opportunity to develop a sense of identity or self-worth without being influenced by total strangers and tech companies. The advancement of smart devices has been a learning curve for everyone but for our youth, we are asking them to develop skills akin to learning how to drive a car without ever having ridden a tricycle. In 2023, the Surgeon General published an Advisory for Social Media and Youth Mental Health. This advisory was developed because social media use among adolescents and young adults is now considered an urgent public health issue. I’ve highlighted important points below in quotes and paraphrases from the published advisory, and you can read the entire piece here.

Risks of social media use

  • Per the Surgeon General: “up to 95% of youth 13-17 years report using a social media platform with more than a third saying they use social media “almost constantly.”
  • Nearly 40% of children 8-12 years of age use social media. As a result, social media has been found to be a risk to the mental health of youth.
  • In early adolescence when identity and a sense of self-worth are being established, the brain is especially susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions and peer comparison. “Because of this vulnerable period in brain development, they (youth) experience heightened emotional sensitivity to the communicative and interactive nature of social media.” As a result, social media use is predictive of a decrease in life satisfaction in girls age 11-13 and boys age 14-15 years.
  • Studies have shown that youth 12-15 years that spent more than 3 hours a day on social media had double the risk of depression and anxiety.
  • Other studies showed that limiting social media to 30 minutes per day for 3 weeks or deactivation of social media for 4 weeks led to improvements in mental health.
  • The use of social media was linked to increased risk of cyberbullying related depression, body image and disordered eating behaviors and poor sleep.

How has social media become such a problem?

Social media apps “maximize user engagement which encourages excessive use and behavioral dysregulation.” The use of push notifications, auto play, infinite scrolling, quantifying and displaying popularity, i.e., likes, are particularly tantalizing for youth and can trigger pathways comparable to addiction.

  • A national survey of girls 11-15 years showed that one third or more say they feel “addicted” to social media platforms.
  • Exposure to social media platforms designed for adults can put youth at risk of unsupervised, developmentally inappropriate and potentially harmful use.

What can parents do?

Policymakers and tech companies are starting to take some responsibility for making these platforms safer for our children but there are also things we can do to help as parents.

1. Make a plan.

Before you purchase a phone or smart device for your child, think about how they will use it and what safeguards need to be put in place prior to handing it over to them. It is much easier to put limits on the phone at the beginning than to reign in use or try to regain control.

Part of the plan can include expanding the child’s freedom with the phone over time as they demonstrate responsibility and understanding over the benefits and risks of having access to the internet, navigating social media sites and using self-control regarding use of the phone overall.

Consider general guidelines for the whole family, parents included, as we lead by example. Family guidelines could include limiting use at least one hour prior to bedtime, having electronics-free zones in the house, and no electronics for the family at mealtimes.

2. Find Helpful Resources

  • AAP has a Family Media Plan that is customizable to build with your child 
  • AAP also has a section on media use by age
  • Apps such as Our Pact and allow the development of schedules regarding phone use overall, but can also block certain apps or have them “disappear” after a certain amount of time or time of day. Features can notify a parent if the child downloads a new app or can block the ability for a new app to be downloaded without parent approval.
  • Common Sense Media is non-profit organization with the goal to “improve the lives of kids and families by providing independent reviews, age ratings, & other information about all types of media.” The app
  • “The Anxious Generation,” by social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt explores the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues among young people in recent decades as we’ve gotten away from a “play-based” childhood to one that’s “phone-based. “He offers reforms and tips for parents on how to overcome these challenges.

3. Have the Conversations

From general settings to safety concerns, there are many things to cover with your child. From the beginning, your child should understand that as the caregiver, you can have access to their phone at any time and that frequent, unplanned checks will occur. This should be a stipulation of getting a phone, as it is a privilege and a hefty responsibility. Start with significant limits on the phone and then relax them over time (years) as your child becomes more responsible and matures.

Discuss how the phone will be used by the child before handing it over and let them tell you how they are looking forward to using it. Review which social media sites are appropriate based on the age of the child, and that their sites will be set up as private accounts, not public — they should understand the difference and why this is important to their safety. In addition, they should be aware that they should not share personal information as it could put them at greater risks to predators, how cyberbullying can occur and how even forwarding a text or photo contributes to it.

It’s also important to talk about what the consequences will be for being irresponsible with the device so that there are no surprises when you take their phone or limit access to it. Lastly, discuss how overusing the device can develop into a form of addiction that can be detrimental to your child’s well-being.

Final Thoughts

As a parent and pediatrician, I understand and see how screens and social media can play a big part in our daily lives — the good and the bad. My advice is to keep an open line of communication with your child and don’t have this conversation just one time. As your child matures, there will be some aspects of using a smart device that will need to be newly addressed or adapted based on their age. Let your child know that they can ask you for help — whether it is interpreting a text, sensing they have put themselves at risk to a child predator, or how to help a friend who is contemplating self-harm — they should know that they can come to you for help without risk of repercussion and together you and your child can solve the issue. It’s important for children to know that the use of electronics and social media takes time to learn and we have all made mistakes using them.

Although this may seem like a lot of effort up front, you will be rewarded with peace of mind and your child will thrive as they successfully navigate the technological world of today. Thanks for reading!

Dr. Grace Conley