Much has been made of adolescents and their exposure to social media. A recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that 76% of U.S. adults don't think kids should use social media before they turn 13, and nearly the same amount said they see social media as having a negative impact on children's mental health. It's little surprise, then, that a new survey identifies social media, internet safety and children's exposure to screen time and dependence on devices like smartphones as issues parents say they're most concerned about.
What the research says
The just-released 2023 Mott Poll, conducted by the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health, asked 2,099 parents to rank the issues that worry them most when it comes to their kids' health. The top spot went to "overuse of devices/screen time," which 67% of respondents flagged as a pressing concern, followed by children's use of social media (66%) and internet safety (62%).
Mental health concerns followed, with 57% of parents expressing worry about their kids experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts. Bullying was cited as a concern by 53%, while 52% named stress and anxiety.
Rounding out the top 10 were unhealthy diet (52%), costs of health care/health insurance (50%), school violence (49%) and smoking and/or vaping (48%). Just 12% of parents cited COVID-19 as a child health concern, while 16% expressed worries about vaccine safety.
Concerns about the impact of social media and technology on kids have picked up amid the pandemic. The 2020 Mott Poll named overuse of social media and screen time as the top concern (72%), though the 2016 and 2017 polls only named internet safety as the fourth (49%) and fifth (55%) biggest issue, respectively. Pre-pandemic, parents named bullying, obesity and drug abuse as more pressing concerns.
"Children are using social media at younger ages, and parents struggle with how to appropriately monitor this area and help their children avoid the negative aspects of its use," the Mott Poll report reads.
What experts say
Clearly, parents are worried about how technology is impacting their kids — but are their fears unfounded? Though some studies have linked screen time in young children to poor sleep and developmental delays, research is mixed. It's worth noting that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) no longer gives a recommended limit on screen time.
"There isn’t enough evidence demonstrating a benefit from specific screen time limitation guidelines," the AAP says. "Because children and adolescents can have many different kinds of interactions with technology, rather than setting a guideline for specific time limits on digital media use, we recommend considering the quality of interactions with digital media and not just the quantity, or amount of time."
Social media also isn't quite so cut and dry. In May the American Psychological Association (APA) issued new social media guidelines for tweens and teens, noting that for some — including LGBTQ youth and adolescents who lack support at home — having an online community is important. But the APA also urged parents to monitor their children's social media use and to make sure kids have enough media literacy skills to critically parse the information they're getting online.
"Social media is neither inherently harmful nor beneficial to our youth,” APA president Thema Bryant said of the guidelines in a statement. “But because young people mature at different rates, some are more vulnerable than others to the content and features on many social media platforms that science has demonstrated can influence healthy development. Just as we require young people to be trained in order to get a driver’s license, our youth need instruction in the safe and healthy use of social media.”
She adds, "Social media in particular is so present in our day-to-day lives as adults, or as children, that I think as a society we're struggling with how to have appropriate boundaries with it [and] how to take the good — the connection and the information that we can find online — without having it become a barrier towards our well-being."
Licensed marriage and family therapist Gayane Aramyan also points out that social media and the internet, in general, can exacerbate a lot of other child health concerns. "Devices can expose children to risks such as bullying, inappropriate content, misinformation, online predators, body image issues, addiction, a loss of face-to-face interaction and a potentially negative influence on mental health and academic success," she says.
What can parents do?
A big question for many parents is determining when their child is old enough to get on social media, given the assumption that there's no putting the proverbial genie back in the bottle. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy shared this year that he considers 13 "too early." Fradin also advises "delaying screen time and social media until your child is ready for it" — noting that "being ready" can vary from kid to kid.
"The truth is that once children start with social media, then they also need supervision for making sure that they're being kind to others and accessing content that's appropriate and [connecting with] people that they know rather than strangers," Fradin adds. "And that supervision is also time-consuming for parents. So before you give in to the peer pressure or the child's demands for access, really think about if you have the bandwidth as a parent to support it in the way that will maintain your child's well-being — because it's not easy."
Fradin adds that it can be difficult for parents to feel like they're the only "holdout" who isn't letting their kids use a smartphone or set up a Snapchat account. Groups like Wait Until 8th (as in, eighth grade) can be powerful tools for parents looking for accountability and support when it comes to raising kids off social media.
If a child is already online, Aramyan advises parents to "engage in open communication" about what they might encounter and how it might make them feel. Setting boundaries is also key, she says.
"It is important to educate children about online safety and to utilize parental monitoring tools when possible," Aramyan adds. "Ensure that your child feels comfortable enough approaching you if they encounter anything inappropriate or worrisome."
Parents — some of whom may be guilty of "phubbing," or "phone snubbing," around their kids — should also model discipline around their own devices. That might mean turning off Dad's Apple Watch notifications after work, swapping a Netflix binge watch for family game night or setting guidelines that everyone in the house has to follow.
"Kids need to see you being off of your phone and [modeling] what it’s like to not depend on the device," Aramyan says. "If dinner is a no-screen time for the kids, then I would encourage parents to also put away their phones. Devices block our view of each other and inhibit interpersonal connections, so it's important for everyone's well-being to learn to put their phones away."
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