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The Social Media Sweet Spot: 5 Ways Parents Can Help Teens Use Social Media Thoughtfully

two bored teenage girls look at their phonesA recent study out of University College London confirmed a very strong connection between social media use and depressive symptoms in teenagers. And this connection was much stronger in girls than in boys. (This does not mean that social media causes depression -- it just means that we know that children who use more social media have more depressive symptoms. More research needs to be done to figure out the reason behind this.)

The researchers looked at four explanations for why this might be. Poor sleep, online harassment, poor self-esteem, and poor body image all played a role.

My mind’s eye went immediately to my three wonderful, intelligent, strong and independent daughters, and to the social media apps that are such an integral part of their lives. My 15-year-old texts and video-chats with her friends through Snapchat, FaceTime and Whatsapp. My 13-year-old creates lip-syncing videos to share with her buddies via TikTok. And my 9-year-old immerses herself in a virtual zoological Animal Jam world of colorful biomes and customizable animals.

These apps provide positive experiences, such as socializing with friends, expressing emotions through creative cinematography, and learning facts about wildlife and its habitats. My little one often claims, “I’m so much better at typing now that I am using Animal Jam all the time!” Indeed, there is something to be said for the technical savvy that children are picking up as they navigate their way through social media landscapes that often baffle the older generation. If electronic communication is the way of the future, then it can be helpful to hone their digital skills at early ages.

In fact, there are a myriad of benefits to social media. The American Academy of Pediatrics lists a few: offering of opportunities for community engagement, such as political or charitable events; fostering of ideas through blogs, videos, podcasts and games; opening of doors to connect with people of diverse backgrounds in a much smaller and more interconnected global world; enhancing of learning opportunities as students gather together in group chats to work on homework or projects; and greater access to health information about topics that teens might otherwise not feel comfortable discussing with adults (such as mental or sexual health issues).

So there are pros and cons. This leaves us with so many questions. How do we parents find the balance? That sweet spot where they reap the benefits but are protected from the pitfalls? How much do we need to worry about impending depression or anxiety creeping up on them? How much time is too much time on social media? What can I do to mitigate these scary-sounding effects the devices might be having on my children?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts on how parents can help teens use social media thoughtfully and appropriately:

  • Create screen-free zones, such as bedrooms and kitchen tables. And screen-free times such as mealtime and before bedtime. This will help reduce the amount of time kids are on their devices and allow for better quality and quantity sleep. (The devices might need to be given a “curfew” to enforce this tactic. A charging station in the kitchen or other central room can also be a good spot to park the devices for the night.)
  • Open the lines of communication with your kids. Talk to them about their social media experiences. Educate them about the advantages and disadvantages. Have ongoing conversations about anything they want to talk about, and reassure them that you are the trusted adult they can turn to if/when they become mired in teenage angst.
  • Keep in mind that it is not only quantity, but quality, that is important. Keep abreast of the apps your children are using, and encourage them to use social media in positive ways.
  • Avoid banning, blocking or restricting your kids’ access to social media sites. This generally doesn’t work and may backfire if the forbidden fruit becomes so tempting that they simply use it behind your back.
  • Be a good example to your kids. Use your own devices less! Engage with your children, and on your own, in non-screen activities. Enjoy the outdoors, read a book, play a game, do some fun activities as a family. Wax nostalgic for the days of yore when smartphones didn’t exist but people still knew how to enjoy!

My three girls are living in the wild west of cyberspace, with a frontier that is open to exploration. I hope that I can help guide them to that sweet spot of not-too-much and not-too-little, so that they enjoy the positive without enduring the negative along the way.

Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD, is a visiting scholar with the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is also a pediatrician and medical editor at Nemours Children’s Health System's KidsHealth.org.

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Tips for Parents to Manage Kids’ Fortnite Obsession

Mother and son play video gamesVideo games are on my mind these days. Especially violent ones, like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. But special recognition goes to Fortnite, since as a mother and pediatrician, my interests lie in what is most popular among the children.

What is Fortnite? It’s an online multiplayer shooter game, in which 100 players are dropped onto an island where they are expected to attack other players while defending themselves. Eventually one player remains and is declared the winner.

What has brought Fortnite to my attention? First, I learned about the recent inaugural Fortnite World Cup in which over 40 million players participated, from more than 200 countries. It took place at a real stadium with an audience of almost 24,000 live viewers, and more than 2 million people watching from their electronic devices. If those numbers alone weren’t mind-boggling enough, the tournament offered a $30 million prize pool. Teenagers became millionaires overnight.

Next, I was recently privy to several online discussions among large groups of parents discussing the Fortnite phenomenon and how to rein it in. The minority of parents knew nothing of the game. There were a few parents who focused on the positive aspects of online games, such as opportunity for learning skills like conflict negotiation or hand-eye coordination, and the provision of a space to forge online communities and peer relationships. In fact, the concept of “social acceptance” was a recurring theme amongst the game’s advocates. A very small group of enthusiastic gamer parents even played together with their children and praised the game for teaching building know-how and springboarding discussions about budgeting and finances.

But the overwhelming majority of parents responded with a resounding “DON’T GO THERE!” Their concerns were varied. Some worried about the addictive component and excessive screen time exposure. Others feared online predators. But mostly it was the violent nature that gave them angst. While observing their children play, they noted emotional agitation, aggressive language, and trash talk. And this made them cringe. They collectively questioned the effect of exposure to virtual violence on their children’s overall mental health and wellbeing.

This was not only a topic for parenting forums, but for the media in general, following the devastating mass shootings that took place last month in Texas and Ohio. An alleged connection between video game and real world violence was cited yet again by lawmakers wanting to point a finger at factors that might be contributing to the preponderance of mass shootings in the U.S.

The blaming of video game culture led to a widespread media response noting that researchers thus far have not proven an absolute cause and effect link between video game violence and mass atrocities. Experts have pointed out that billions of people play video games in countries all over the world, yet do not suffer from the same gun violence as Americans have to contend with on a daily basis. In fact, countries such as Japan and South Korea have a much more intense gaming industry, but extremely low rates of violent crime and mass casualty events. One thing does seem clear, though- easy access to firearms, weak gun laws, and the sheer number of civilian-owned guns is unique to the U.S. and most likely a major contributing factor in the gun violence we see today.

Finally, in my capacity as visiting scholar in the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Center for Women, I am working with researchers to study the impact of social media on children and adolescents. This includes interactive games such as Fortnite. A recent study from this lab conducted by Dr. Linda Charmarmaran found that Fortnite gamers reported getting less sleep than non-players, a deprivation that can potentially compromise school performance.

So what are parents to do about their child’s Fortnite obsession? Here are some tips gleaned from experts in the fields of psychology and pediatrics:

  • Watch and play with your child to determine whether the game is appropriate for your child at this stage in their life.
  • Set limits about when and how much your child can play, so as not to interfere with more important activities, such as homework, sleep, physical activity, and real-life interactions with friends and family.
  • Talk about the feelings the game triggers in your child, and explain your values regarding violent behavior and conflict resolution.

My daughters don’t play Fortnite. But they have a very active online presence, and these tips will be on my mind as new apps and games dominate their world.

Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD, is a visiting scholar with the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is also a pediatrician and medical editor at Nemours Children’s Health System's KidsHealth.org.

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