**By Alan Hativa**
As I cook dinner for my family, I watch my kids devouring online games. I worry about the future of these digital natives, how they are learning to communicate and the role technology is playing in their lives. Our parents told us that balance is the key to living a healthy life but how much screen time is OK? How safe is it? And how can we as parents help guide our kids?
To get answers to some of these questions I interviewed kids ages 8 to 15, their parents and Alejandro Candelario, MD, FAAP, a Virginia Mason pediatrician. Here’s what I learned about social media usage, internet safety and the potential consequences of interacting online.
How kids and teens use social media
In today’s world, social media is not only a tool but also a social lifeline for kids, teens and some adults. Before teens got online, they would see friends they knew at the local hang-outs, but now there’s no geographic limit to their social lives. Twitter and Facebook are the drive-ins and malls of modern times.
Kids and teens usage of technology will only increase with time. According to the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of American teens go online daily, including 24 percent who go online “almost constantly.” Teens are also more likely to use more than one social media channel, shown in this bar graph.
Dangers of social media
Social media can be a force for good. It can help kids stay connected with friends and family, get them involved in community activities, and enhance creativity through the sharing of ideas as they find others with similar interests.
On the other hand, there are some pitfalls and potential dangers that stem from social media use. Dr. Candelario notes that:
- Social media encourages less personal interaction.
- Kids are not learning as much conflict resolution.
- You can’t verify someone’s identity or age online. This can lead to a situation where a child is unknowingly interacting with an adult.
- It’s also easier to say mean things or bully kids online, known as cyberbullying. Cyberbullying has been linked to an increased risk of depression and suicide in kids and teens.
Protecting privacy is another major concern when kids and teens interact online. Kids may not always think about the consequences of their actions when they share too much information about themselves. This misstep can be a way for online predators to identify a young person and determine their location. Even tech-savvy kids are often unaware of how they may be compromising their own privacy and safety.
Even if parents talk with kids about the potential danger of talking to strangers online, it’s practically impossible not to interact with strangers on the various media platforms. For many kids their aim online is to make new friends and build a sort of community, not to meet strangers or disclose personal information. But to do this, they may be tempted to let go of personal details with people they don’t know.
An important reminder for everyone who engages online is that photos, videos and comments usually can’t be taken back once posted. Kids and teens may believe that something is gone once deleted, but it can be impossible to erase something completely from the Internet.
What can parents do to protect their kids online?
When it comes to parenting kids online, the best defense is a good offense. Parents should educate themselves by learning what social media accounts their kids are using and consider creating their own accounts to view their kids’ online activities. Other parents can also be a resource to build awareness of what’s popular with kids online.
Create your own social media account, learn how to use it and what other types of social media accounts are available. Be aware of all of the social media apps your kids are using. Talk to other parents about what they do and what they use.
Here are some good sites for getting more information:
What about screen time?
Dr. Candelario says it is crucial to both monitor and limit the amount of screen time kids and teens are getting. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 1 to 2 hours per day. The reasoning is that too much media can lead to attention problems, difficulties in school, sleep disorders and obesity. Here are some tips to help limit and screen time and increase safety:
- Access to screens. Put computers in a central location in the home where they can easily be monitored by an adult. As for mobile devices, Dr. Candelario recommends that parents take them when kids come home after school and return them after chores and homework are complete.
- Privacy and safety. Talk to your kids about not sharing personal information, and never meeting someone they communicate with online that they don’t already know. Learn what privacy settings are available in social media apps (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and help your child use them. Have a conversation about digital footprints — anything they do online will never go away and what consequences that can have.
- Encourage good behavior. Dr. Candelario says that parents should have an open conversation with their kids about good citizenship online. Don’t lie and don’t gang up on other kids. As in life, teach them to treat others the way they would want to be treated. Model good behavior as a parent: show kids examples of good online decisions and why they were made. Just as parents guide their children through other life challenges, so they must show them how to safely navigate online.
Social media is here to stay
Our kids are growing up within the labyrinth of social media. Privacy, cyberbullying, interacting with strangers and managing an identity online are all issues facing our kids. It is more important than ever to be involved in the digital lives of kids and teens. We wouldn’t throw our kids in the deep end the pool without some swimming lessons, and the same goes for letting them jump into social media. With a little education and guidance, parents can be a lifeline for their children who get online.
Alan Hativa is a graphics and multimedia producer at Virginia Mason Medical Center. He is the father of a son, 10 and a daughter, 9.