The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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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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Recognizing Student Parent Needs during Caregivers Month

Student Parent holding baby at graduation“Someday you will go to college, too,” a young mother tells her eight year old son at her baccalaureate graduation ceremony.

“Mom. You're silly,” he replies with a grin. “I already went to college with you!”

Walking hand in hand in cap and gown with their children at graduation is a culminating moment for nearly all of the student parents who I have known and worked with over the years as a researcher, program director, and mentor. These students are nearly universally motivated to pursue post-secondary education as a means to lift their families into the middle class and secure a better life for their children. Parents and children aim for a light at the end of the tunnel, but in the words of my colleague and collaborator Sheila Katz, Ph.D., we have observed that a family’s journey to and through college, doesn’t just make their lives better someday, but in fact begins to change and impact their lives in significant ways from the first day.

Having had the opportunity to work and visit with student parents and their children in multiple programs and in multiple capacities at colleges and universities across the U.S., what I see is that the most important moments are not at the end of the journey, but the everyday steps along the journey itself. It is through these moments that this little boy believed, unwaveringly and unapologetically, that he and his mom had gone to college together: celebrating grades and accomplishments by displaying their school work side by side on the refrigerator, finishing homework assignments side by side at the dining room table, reading together, and sharing in learning and developing knowledge and skills.

As a parent, there are also a number of other little things involved in this journey with the potential to make big impacts on making or breaking a family’s success: safe and affordable housing, childcare, and food security to start. Although one in four undergraduates in the U.S. are parents, these students often lack these basic foundations of college success. A recent study by Sara Goldrick-Rab, Jed Richardson and Anthony Hernandez found that 63 percent of student parents experience food insecurity during college, while 77 percent experience housing insecurity and/or homelessness. Yet, we know through data we have been collecting on campus-based family housing, childcare, and student parent programs, that the need is much greater than the capacity of currently available programs.

Our free downloadable National Family Housing Database finds, for example, that only ten percent of colleges and universities in the U.S. offer student housing options that allow children to live in residence. Yet, this includes institutions where available family housing units may be extremely limited, and/or unaffordable to undergraduate students attending college with student financial aid. Furthermore, as we continue to update these data, we have observed a number of institutions that are reducing or eliminating their family housing programs, despite rising demographic need. This further varies by region, whereby disparities between need and available support programs are even further illuminated.

While the capital expenses involved in building family housing and childcare may initially be seen as cost-prohibitive by many institutions, colleges are also working to impact student parent success in other ways, starting small. Opportunities to engage and bring families to campus together provide low-cost strategies for impacting intergenerational college access and success.

For example, I worked with Endicott College’s Boston Student Parent Initiative to implement a family literacy program through which the program arranged trips to local museums and cultural events, at which each family received an age-appropriate children's book related to the field trip, to take home as an extension of learning together. After taking the families to see a musical rendition of the classic children’s book Caps for Sale, one of the students came to my office to report that not only had her son insisted on reading the book together every night for weeks, he wanted her to, “Sing it Mom! Like they did at the play!” At Mt. Wachusett Community College in Central Massachusetts, I was privileged to visit during a Halloween Arts & Crafts event organized for students and their families by the student parent program coordinator. Portland State University’s Resource Center for Students with Children provides tablets and activity backpacks that students can check out for the day if they need to bring their child to class with them. Partnerships between universities, government agencies, and nonprofits can also allow affordable retention and support strategies to be created for student parents.

Ultimately, student parents need support in both big and small ways: they need housing and childcare. They need support to balance work and family and toward their academic success. They need opportunities to engage with other students on campus and to share the college experience with their children. Ultimately, it is these experiences that not only caused the little boy to genuinely believe that he had gone to college with his mom, but also, to support their family together as learners so that both mom and child share in the mutual investment in education together.

Autumn Green, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women. In addition to studying the lives of student parents, she has worked to help create two-generation programs on college and university campuses to support student parents and their children together as families pursuing education and shared goals for a future of happiness, security, and opportunity.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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