Advancements in technology change the way we deliver and use everything – from health care to education. While it can improve efficiencies, the 24/7 access a digital world provides can also have negative effect on a person’s mental and emotional well being, especially for kids.
While it’s difficult for parents to stay up-to-date with changing social media platforms and game applications, experts agree that talking with a child early and often about his/her own behavior is key to navigating the online world.
“Social media isn’t going away, and it changes daily so a parent who thinks spying or ‘friending’ their kids will help protect them is missing the most important tool they can use – one-to-one communication with their child,” said Melissa McClain, community education programs coordinator for Akron Children’s Hospital’s School Health Services. “The No. 1 expert on what your child is doing online is your own child so talk with him about what he’s experiencing and encourage responsible behavior even when he thinks no one is watching.”
Akron Children’s School Health Services has 250 care providers deployed in 31 school districts across northeast Ohio so they see first-hand the impact digital media can have on students – from fatigue and headaches to anxiety and depression. As part of the services offered through School Health Services, schools have access to experts like McClain who can speak about topics impacting kids and families.
“Kids want to assert independence, and social media is often a way for them to do this, but they’re still developing intellectual, social and emotional skills so peer evaluation can be hard for them to cope with,” said McClain. “Whether your kids are 2 or 22, remind them how to be a good citizen by talking about choices, risk-taking and how to deal with their emotions so they can behave and react to situations in a positive way.”
McClain advises parents to engage in conversation about the challenges and opportunities social media offers. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that social media can provide kids with enhanced social support and connection, but too much screen time can place them at risk of obesity, sleep problems, cyber bullying and negative performance at school.
Children could also be tempted to show how tough they are by participating in the latest social media “challenge” (ie. cinnamon challenge, eraser challenge, ice challenge, etc) without realizing there are real consequences.
“Although it’s fun to connect with information and friends online, it’s important parents and kids understand that even as technology changes, the ground rules for how to treat others – in person or cyberspace – don’t,” said McClain. “It’s never too late to teach kids how to behave responsibly. What they learn in interpersonal settings will be what they rely on in social and online settings for life.”
To support a child’s emotional well being in a tech-driven world, McClain offers several tips for parents to consider:
- Use online media – download it, play it and understand it – as a conduit for conversation with a child. By using a game or app together in an interactive way, parents can ask questions and stay informed about a variety of media their child is using.
- Remember parents set the example – whether intentional or not – and children model what they see. Put devices away at dinner, at family time and sporting events. Show kids the focus is on them or the activity in real-time.
- It’s not required to respond to every message or alert when it comes in. Teach kids that just because devices are 24/7, our response doesn’t have to be. There’s a time and a place for responding.
- Create a safe, non-judgmental environment where a child feels comfortable coming to a parent for help or questions rather than only relying on feedback from friends – virtual or real – or Google and Siri.
- Encourage children to be the best they can be in all aspects of life, including online. If they see or hear something that isn’t right, teach them how to say or do something to correct it. Give examples of how to say no. Start with lower risk conversations about personal judgment and build up to higher risk scenarios about drugs, dating and bullying.
- Create a family mission statement to use as a reminder of what’s most important to the family. This can give a framework for expected behavior from every family member and gives kids another reason why they should resist bad behavior.
- Beware of the over-share. Selfies and digital memories are fun to have and share but often people miss the moment. Remind kids that posts are permanent and public, so be thoughtful in what they share and how often they share.
- Don’t underestimate the power of real, live conversations. Take opportunities at dinner, in the car and before bed to talk about news, homework or activities. More meaningful questions typically provide more thoughtful answers.
- Know that credible, online resources are available to support kids and families with topics such as positive digital citizenship (cyberwise.org), dating abuse (thatsnotcool.com) and support for depression, anxiety or suicide ideation (teenlineonline.org). School health members and school counselors are also safe places to seek help.