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Helping Your Kids Navigate the Social Media World: A Guide For Parents

The Unplug Series: Part 4

The allures, the harms, and how to take control of our minds.


So you've read our content on harms, social media attention tactics, and how to control your own media usage. This post is for parents who want to learn how they can better guide their children through the social media realm and set them up with healthy habits.

"Kids' cognitive challenges with learning, as well as social challenges such as bullying and body image issues, may be exacerbated by the tech they use. Parents can help by taking an active role in talking to their kids about tech, but parents are often struggling to understand and manage similar tech problems themselves." -Tristan Harris.

1. Lead by example

Kids are learning from the adults in their lives. So at home, set the example that you want them to emulate: don't prioritize a buzz over the conversation at hand. Don't bring the phone to the table. Make sure they see you engaging with your friends, family, or partner in a social way that doesn't prioritize being on your phones. This is easier said than done since adults struggle with their own boundaries with technology and social media.

2. Help them understand the why

Younger kids don't get why spending 10 hours a day on their screen is bad for them- especially when all their friends are doing it. It is really important that when setting boundaries for the family on screen time and social media, you explain why those measures are important. This also includes them in the discussion and the decision making, which can be seen as beneficial to the whole family instead of just rules for them to follow.

3. Phone free zones

Designate phone free zones like the dinner table, the car, and bedrooms. Phones are the culprit of so many conversations, laughs, and bonding moments lost. The dinner table should be the place you set for family discussions and catching up- for meaningful conversation. This is something that should be easy for the whole family to follow, not just the kids. The bedroom is important for kids to have phone boundaries as well. Many kids (and adults) stay up on their screens for hours past bed time, and it is the first thing they do in the morning- which can set their day off to a pretty rough start depending on what they see on their phone. Driving is also another time during the day that can be better used for connecting with each other.

social media tips for parents

4. Physical alarm clock

Following the bedroom considerations, all of our experts suggest using an alarm clock in the bedroom for time and alarms. This way you know your kids aren't bringing the anxiety of social media to bed, or starting off their day with it. Aside from the anxiety, increased screen time has a damaging effect on sleep length and quality, which is especially important for developing brains.

5. No phone for one hour before bed

Blue light, the kind of light emitted from screens, has been shown to degrade sleep quality. Try setting a one hour of no phone use before bed time. This time can be used for reading, hygiene, preparing for tomorrow, or homework. Most phones also have a night light or wind down option, which changes the brightness and type of light emitted after a certain hour.

social media tips for parents

6. Focus with the phone out of the room

Studies show that even the presence of our phone- even if it is turned off, has a significant cognitive drain on our subconscious minds. The presence of our phone reduces our available cognitive capacity, especially for those most addicted. To help your kids with their focus, and yourself, get in the habit of moving phones outside the office or work space during homework, studying, or focus time. This will arm them with a habit that will benefit them throughout their education and career.

"7% of over 2,200 teachers say the number of students who are distracted by digital technologies in the classroom is growing; 76% of teachers say that their students’ ability to focus on educational tasks decreased in the 3 to 5 years before 2015." - Tristan Harris

*the 3-5 years before 2015 is the time period that smart phones and social media became ordinary among middle school and high schoolers.

7. Set plans for the day

Help your kids see their day as a valuable opportunity to further themselves. At breakfast, discuss what they would like to get out of their day and their priorities. Screen time should only be used after these activities and not instead of them. These priorities can include physical play time, crafts, homework, reading, sports, etc. This helps them understand the importance of goal setting, prioritizing, and discipline. All three of our sources here recommend setting a limit of 2 hours per day for social media or games on the phone.

8. No social media until high school - earliest

This is something Jonathan Haidt stands by as one of his top three recommendations for parents alongside no phones for one hour before bed, and a two hour max screen time per day. This is due to the research that shows that social media negatively impacts kids and preteens far more than it impacts older teenagers and adults. It appears that the older you are when you start using social media, the better prepared you are to deal with all of its harms. For more on this topic, click here.

9. Ask the right questions

Tristan Harris suggests that when talking to your kids about different apps, instead of asking “Do you like that game/app?” Ask: “How does that game/app make you feel?” This allows us to separate the focus from how much time we’re spending on something vs. how it impacts us on a human level. There are more consequences of apps than wasted time, and as we learned in our article about harms- mental health, bullying, and poor self esteem are among them. Prioritizing how apps make you feel instead of what you do on them is a good way to understand whats really happening.

10. Encourage activities that improve social, emotional, and physical skills

"86% of over 2,200 teachers said the number of students with social challenges has increased in the 3-5 years before 2015; 90% said they saw increased emotional challenges, and 77% cognitive challenges." -Tristan Harris.

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Our teen girl martial arts class

One of the common concerns of parents and teachers is that as kids are spending more time online, their social and emotional skills are falling behind. Their social interactions are more awkward, and they are less physically aware of themselves. Something you can do as a parent is make sure your kids have activities outside of school that get them socializing and physically interacting with other kids. Instruments and tutoring are great, but they are missing necessary social elements. Girl guides, dance, soccer, and martial arts are all great examples of these types of social, emotional, and physical skill building activities. Summer camps also provide great opportunities to build these life skills while getting the kids off social media all day.

Tip: Common Sense Media is a resource for parents with explainers of specific apps your kids might be using and how-to’s for setting controls on them.


*The knowledge in this series was learned mostly from social media authors and researchers Tristan Harris, Jonathan Haidt, and Guy P. Harrison.

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Author: Gemma Sheehan

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