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How to ensure your child has a healthy relationship with social media

Posted on 24 January 2018

Is social media “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works”? These are the words of a former Facebook executive, who recently expressed regret and guilt over his part in building tools for the social media network that are “destroying how society works”.

His comments were made shortly after Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker admitted to knowing they were creating something addictive that exploits a vulnerability in human psychology from the outset. The aim, he says, was always to consume as much of their users’ time and conscious attention as possible.

At one end of the spectrum, this power of social media networks is now coming under intense scrutiny on a global scale. Drawing a straight line between addiction to social media and political upheavals like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, many tech insiders feel that digital forces have completely upended the political system.

In response to this, Facebook has already announced that it is changing the way its news feed works to make posts from businesses, brands and media less prominent and ensure the network is “good for people’s wellbeing.”

But much closer to home, what impact is social media having on our children and our private lives? How can we mitigate the psychological effects of being stuck in a social-validation feedback loop? What impact is it having on their concentration levels and productivity at school?


Hijacking the mind

Smart phones and other screen devices have become part of everyday life in most UK households. Our children have grown up with them and most won’t be able to remember a time when they didn’t have access to one.

But there is now a general consensus, reinforced by an open letter to Apple from two of its investors last week, that the potential long-term consequences of new technologies need to be factored in at the outset and that “no company can outsource that responsibility”.

As parents, it’s both enlightening and scary to think that we may be the last generation that can remember life before, making it all the more important for it to be talked about now.

So what can we do to regain control of our time and manage the distractions posed by our screens and their shiny, addictive apps?


Find a balance; set boundaries

Last summer a “Digital 5 A Day” campaign was launched by the children’s commissioner to help parents regulate internet and smartphone use at home, comparing overconsumption of social media to a junk-food diet.

And while the debate around childrens’ screentime is a highly emotive and divisive subject, setting some ground rules for time spent online and social media consumption is never a bad idea.

The “Digital 5 A Day” campaign gives children and parents easy to follow, practical steps to achieve a healthy and balanced digital diet. Think about limiting access to screens in situations that would otherwise be opportunities to be active, creative or sociable – out at a restaurant for a family meal, for example.

And with alcohol and partying no longer being the key challenges for parents of older children, the Telegraph has some great survival tips on screens and teens for parents on the technology battlefield, covering everything from encouraging them to read instead of chatting online and dealing with the psychological effects of a "Life in Likes".


Identity, self-esteem and cyberbullying

The “Life in Likes” report published by the Children’s Commissioner for England deals with the impact of social media on the lives of children before they become teenagers.

The report reveals that many children are becoming increasingly anxious about their online image and “keeping up appearances” as they get older. It sets out that social media companies must take more responsibility for helping children through the challenges of life online as they are at risk of growing up chasing likes.

The Commissioner also called for digital literacy and online resilience lessons for year 6 and 7 students to enable them to learn about the emotional side of social media beyond the online safety issues everyone is already aware of.

This serves as a healthy reminder about cyber bullying and how to deal with it if you suspect it is going on. It can be difficult for a bullied child to open up and talk about it.  Internet matters.org contains excellent advice on how to open up lines of communication with your child as well as practical tips on how to stop cyberbullying situations.


Online safety

It would be naïve to discuss children’s use of technology and its psychological effects without reminding ourselves of the potential dangers posed by the world wide web.

To help you navigate the fast-moving and ever-changing world of social apps and games, Netware is a regularly updated and enlightening site that reviews the benefits and risks of the most popular social networks and apps plus tips for safe use.

Techadvisor also has lots of great tips to share on how to keep children and teens safe online and provides information on the best parental control software on the market.

Common to all this advice is that with the best will and most robust tools in the world we can neither fully protect our children online nor constantly monitor their exposure to social media. The best approach is to talk early and often to your child and keep an open dialogue going at all times, allowing them to think critically about what it all means.