by Anne Nederveld
It seems like my “new to middle school” son has been the prompt for several blogs! Maybe I wasn’t paying close attention when my daughter made this transition – somehow it seems like things are happening differently for my son. In any case, the issue at our house over the past week has been social media and texting. Many of us struggle to know how to handle social media for our kids or ourselves. We discovered that some not-so-nice texting was going on between the sixth-grade boys in at my son’s school when our son showed us a particularly colorful text he received. Our son had sent a chain text, and apparently one of his friends really hates chain texts. The friend’s response was angry and mean, and we wondered why it was so severe. What was going on with this kid? We also started looking through other texts and discovered several instances of kids texting screenshots of other kids’ texts – nothing too serious, but it seemed like gossiping at best. Also, we found things on the social media site he was using that weren’t so nice either. Now, clearly adults aren’t always appropriate and respectful in texts or social media either, but we came away feeling that maybe these kids aren’t really mature enough to communicate using a medium that allows ambiguity and knee-jerk responses.
So, we decided to look into our options to change the tone. We understand that kids need to be able to communicate with each other and that without a landline at home, that communication becomes difficult. Also, it is great to be able to text him if I am running late picking him up (always). As a pediatrician, I had read articles about the effects of social media on kids, but now that it was personal, I decided to review. This is what I found:
Using social media rather than just being social can interfere with the development of good interpersonal skills – this is what we felt like we were seeing for sure. Middle-schoolers have always gossiped and been unkind, but it’s so much easier when you don’t actually say the words. Plus, there’s now a record of your missteps.
Using social media can be related to increased anxiety and may worsen self-esteem. Our lives become a public display and are also curated. Kids have a hard time recognizing this and think that what they see is really what is happening in other kids’ lives all the time. Heck, even adults feel this way sometimes when they see pictures of great vacations or hear about parties, work promotions or new cars on social media platforms. It is much more difficult for kids to recognize that people are only putting their best pictures online and are also able to say that something was a lot better than it was.
Kids use screens too much – we all know this, but some studies show that kids are in front of screens for 4-5 hours a day, outside of school! There aren’t great studies on social media and health conditions such as overweight and obesity, but certainly, the screen time increases the risk.
So, what to do? I did email the principal at my child’s school, who said they discuss these issues there, which I am happy to hear. He also said that no aspect of your child’s online life should be private, so that reassured me that we should continue to monitor. I also talked with friends with older kids and based on their experiences, decided to install a parental monitoring app to limit time and prohibit downloads without our permission. My husband and I also agreed to put our phones away when we come home in the evening as we aren’t always the best examples. It’s a start, but I think the most important thing is to continue to encourage kids to spend time with real people in real life and to make sure they are doing the things we know promote health and happiness: exercise, sleep, eat healthy foods and spend time with the people that love them.