Recently, I have had a number of conversations with friends and colleagues about social media use by elementary aged children. This isn’t anything new, I mean the iPod has been around since 2001 and the iPad has been with us since 2010. But now the influx of brand-spanking new iPhone 6S’s have made their way into the hands of 8, 9, and 10-year-olds. And now the attraction isn’t the latest and greatest video game to play, it is the most entertaining social media app that gets the kids attention these days. It used to be that the elementary aged child was allowed a few extra years of development before the hypnotic draw of social media was in their palms. Many children had their first phones bestowed on them as a right of passage from elementary school to middle school. Selfishly, this was ideal because the influence of social media did not really have to be addressed at the elementary level for the most part. I left that to the capable hands of the middle school guidance staff, teachers and administrators! However, the times they are a-changing and we are getting more and more 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders wielding their very own smartphones. The question is, are they ready for what comes next and are we as parents ready to help them navigate this new terrain.
When my children turned 16, they wanted to get their Learner's permit in order to learn to drive a car. That meant that we as parents had to either strap ourselves into the car and provide instruction on how to stay alive while operating a motor vehicle (while fervently praying under our breath!) or pay for someone to provide them with this knowledge. It would be absurd to let our children simply get behind the wheel without explicit instructions on how to drive. Their level of proficiency for driving could mean the difference between life and death. It might seem like a stretch to compare the skills and supervision required to learn how to drive a car to learning how to navigate social media, but I don’t really think so. The potholes kids can fall into using social media can be just as dangerous as those on the open road.
The following is an excerpt from CommonSense Media about a new social media-specific anxiety called FOMO, also known as "fear of missing out."
Parents can help. If you see your kids struggling -- maybe they're always stressed out after being on the phone or they're staying up too late texting -- step in.
Listen. It can be easy to dismiss FOMO and other social media stress as superficial, but for many tweens and teens, social media is social life. The more you show you care about how they feel, the more open they’ll be.
Don't judge. Snapchat seems a little dumb, doesn't it? But for tweens and teens, connecting with their peers is a normal part of child development. For you, it meant hours on the phone. For them, it means lots and lots of rainbow vomit.
Encourage their offline lives. FOMO can chip away at kids' self-esteem, but the best defense is a strong sense of what makes kids unique, worthy, and valuable. Help kids participate in sports, clubs, drama, or volunteer work to help them weather the ups and downs of social media anxiety.
Set limits. After all the listening and validating is over, set some basic limits around when and where the phone or computer can be used. Start with turning phones off an hour before bedtime and storing them in your room to help kids resist the temptation to stay up late texting. You can suggest they tell their friends they'll be signing off at a specific time, so they won't be expecting a response.
Shift the focus. If kids are feeling overwhelmed by keeping up with all the social stuff online, encourage them to focus on the creative side of Instagram, for example, instead. Entering photo contests or building a portfolio can shift the focus to the positive side of social media.
Ask open-ended questions. You don't need to solve their problems for them. But you can help them think about what is and isn't working for them. Here are some questions to try:
● Are there any habits you might want to change? (Such as not checking your phone before bed.)
● What would happen if you turned off your phone? For an hour? A day?
● Have you thought about rewarding yourself for not checking your phone or social media for a certain amount of time? (Make a game of it!)
● What are the pros and cons of using Instagram and other social networking apps?
● What would happen if you unfollowed or unfriended someone who was making you feel bad on social media?
● Do you notice that you have better or worse reactions to posts or messages depending on how you feel that day?
These tips for parents are like the booklet they give at the DMV to help kids study for the permit test. Before you put the world wide web in the tiny hand of your tween, make sure they know the rules of the road and can manage the twists and turns in emotions after reading a post or a text. Or let them be Probationary Users of the cell phone and with practice and guidance from you as their parents, they can earn the privilege of becoming a Licensed Social Media User.