With Social Media and Kids, Throw Out the Rulebook

Just pay attention and set expectations. What else can you do?


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Our panel for the April 25 #discussCLT on social media and kids: Amanda Zaidman, Michael Rinehart, moderator Michele Huggins, Melanie Hempe, and Avery Primis.

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The simplest solution to parents’ anxiety about their children’s interactions on social media is the Luddite approach: Deny them smartphones until adulthood. They could find other ways to log on, of course, but at least they wouldn’t be walking around all day with the phones burning holes in their pockets. Curtailed smartphone use isn’t the worst idea for adults, either.

But if you can’t bring yourself to keep that door closed and locked—and heaven knows it’s almost impossible—you have to make some kind of peace with the absence of hard rules for parents trying to shield their kids from the corrosive effects of social media. How old does a kid have to be to use it? How can kids best defend themselves against bullying—or the temptation to become bullies themselves? How many hours per day is too much? Is Fortnite an ingenious platform for building social and problem-solving skills or a gateway to sociopathy? Depends.

So we’re left with guidelines, and this seems to be as good as any: “If you unplug it and your child has a meltdown, that’s a problem,” Melanie Hempe, a panelist at our latest #discussCLT event, said during the discussion at Catawba Brewing Co. last week. “If your kid can take it or leave it, you’re probably pretty balanced. But if your child can’t name three things they like more than their phone, you probably need to look at that a little bit.”

Hempe founded an organization, Families Managing Media, seven years ago after she realized her son’s attachment to video games had swelled into addiction. The organization hosts seminars and workshops aimed at helping parents guide their children’s use of digital media more responsibly, based in part on research that shows some of the dissociative and warping effects overexposure can cause in developing brains. She’s not out to ban social media use for kids. She just wants people to realize that social media are tools, and their capacity for good or harm, as with all tools, lies in their usage.

“The problem is when children’s whole lives are on social media,” Hempe said. “You don’t want that to happen.”

The other panelists—Charlotte Country Day middle school teacher Michael Rinehart; child therapist Amanda Zaidman; and Myers Park High senior Avery Primis—and Charlotte Parent editor Michele Huggins, who moderated, batted those and other questions around for an hour and a half. They conceded from the start that, as Huggins put it, “Kids are probably keeping up faster than we are.”

As the talk progressed, it became clear that this kind of discussion—concerned, a little perplexed—was another version of the same How Do We Protect Our Kids roundtable we’ve all heard over the years. Every generation has its own social phenomenon to grapple with, whether it’s television, recreational drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, or the eternal minefield of sex. Engaging in the discussion means admitting that you, as a parent, don’t have all the answers, maybe not any. “Things were so much simpler in my day,” parents will say, even if they really weren’t. (That’s one reason why we invited Avery, a 17-year-old who says she tries to confront her friends and fellow students when they use their social media platform to act out their meaner impulses.)

But social media do pose a new kind of problem. They carry almost unlimited potential for both social good and psychological harm, and because their universes are contained entirely within a device, grounding a kid as punishment won’t really work, will it? Middle and high-schoolers are using iPads and smartphones for class now, and for homework assignments. The door’s wide open to get bullied or propositioned or addicted without even leaving their bedrooms.

So counteracting the danger comes down to some common-sense measures, which Rinehart ran down. For middle-schoolers, at least, he recommends only one social media account, which parents have access to, and online connections only with people the kids have actually met. “You wouldn’t let strangers in your house,” he said.

Policing anyone’s social media usage is tricky. It’s even harder when new platforms and trends emerge every other day. Rinehart began explaining the phenomenon of “finstas,” secondary Instagram accounts frequently used as vehicles for mockery or bullying in school, as opposed to the innocuous real, or “rinsta,” accounts. Avery, sitting a few feet from the teacher, nodded her head vigorously until Rinehart referred to rinstas as finstas.

“Other way around,” Avery said. Rinehart chuckled to himself. See what I mean?

“It’s like playing Whac-A-Mole. You can’t win,” he added, dating himself in the process. “All you can do is try to have conversations and be involved.” In short, know your kid. Some 14-year-olds are mature enough to handle social media; some aren’t. (The same applies to 50-year-olds.) Some kids can put the phone down; some can’t. (Ditto.) If you forbid some or all social media use, Avery said, a rational explanation helps. FOMO can be an issue, but if kids aren’t on their phones all the time, they can stay blissfully unaware of what they’re MO on.

In short, exercise the fundamentals of good parenting and hope for the best. Pay attention. That means, among other things, putting down your own phone. “We end up with a lot of problems in adulthood,” Hempe said, “when we don’t do childhood well.

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