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“No phones at the dinner table!” Whatever social media restrictions parents had for their children went out the window, as the entire family walked into the door–and stayed inside to shelter at home. COVID-19’s imposed coziness brought together working-from-home parents and their virtual school-aged children. Teens and their often obsessive behavior regarding mobile devices was a concern of many parents pre-COVID-19.

Now in the age of the pandemic, that preoccupation has greatly increased. A new report, Parenting Teens in the Age of Social Media from Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago revealed that, according to the nearly 3,000 parents surveyed, 63% of teens are using social media more than they did pre-pandemic (only 25% said they use it less, and 12% say it’s about the same).

A very large majority of respondents (80%) said they set rules around the use of smartphones and social media, and three out of four said they’ve been successful enforcing them. Forty-three percent of parents used a monitoring app or restrict device and internet use, and 68% said those worked as expected.

“It’s good that parents’ overall responses reflect their balanced understanding of the positive and negative aspects of social media use,” said Claire Coyne, PhD, pediatric psychologist, The Potocsnak Family Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago

Enforced parental rules include how much (31%), when (23%), where (11%), and all three–how much of, when, and where–(35%) their phone can be used. Half of the respondents have censored their teens’ social media posts because parents felt it inappropriate. More than 50% censor sexual content.

SEE: Mobile device computing policy (TechRepublic Premium)

The dark side of social media

The report acknowledges that social media can be constructive or destructive, and the difference is simple: How it’s used. Social media can enrich a teen’s life in many ways and has merits. Despite the more positive aspects, the report focused attention on parents’ concerns and “how it can threaten a young person’s social and psychological well-being.”

The concern is widespread, as reported by the 3,000 survey respondents–58% of parents cite social media as having a negative effect on their children. Parents really want to know how social media affects their children psychologically and socially, and it is a major population: The Department of Health and Human Services reports there are 42 million adolescents in the US now.

Statistics reveal 68% of parents believe social media affects their teen’s ability to socialize normally; 56% believe their teen has an unhealthy desire for attention/approval via social media; and 67% felt concern that their teen is addicted to social media.

These high percentages, when applied to clinically-recognized compulsive behavior such as addiction, drug use, gambling, or sex, “would be declared a public health crisis of historic proportions,” stated the report. The report also noted that the term “addicted” is most often used by non-clinicians to mean compulsive behavior that might not classify as “clinical addiction” but, “even accounting for that, the scope of concern is remarkable.”

Parents also worry their children overshare on social media and that it changes behavior: 20% felt their children were being too sexual, 18% were being insensitive, 16% were being aggressive, and 11% were being reckless. They also felt with the influence of social media, 25% of girls and 11% of boys are too sexual, and 11% of girls and 23% of boys are too aggressive.

The report divided social-media consequences into two categories:

  1. What social media takes children away from: Sleep, physical activity, schoolwork, attention, face-to-face interaction, healthy brain development.
  2. What social media exposes them to: An unhealthy need for approval or attention, becoming sexualized too soon, not enough personal privacy, oversharing, sexual predators, hate speech, an inability to focus, being bullied, and bullying others.

Which social media platforms concern parents the most?

Instagram (48%), Snapchat (45%), TikTok (40%), Facebook (39%), YouTube (15%), Twitter (11%), WhatsApp (11%), Kik (9%), 4chan (8%), Discord (7%), Omegle (4%), Houseparty (4%), Tumbler (4%), and Twitch (3%).

Parents were almost divided evenly when asked if they’d ever confronted their teen regarding inappropriate behavior on social media–54% responded yes, 46% responded no. The highest percentage of inappropriate behavior, parents said was “too sexual” (51%), “bullying” (25%), and hate speech (24%).

Adjusting rules for sheltering at home

“Parents worry about peer victimization and young people seeking out harmful content–non-suicidal self-injury content, for example, in addition to feeling like they are spending too much time online to the exclusion of other health activities such as sleep and exercise,” Coyne said. “Parents can have direct conversations with their children about their worries, and explore how their children might handle difficult online scenarios. Parents can also put effort into modeling a healthy balance in their own digital technology use, and set appropriate rules about when and how phones and screens are used in the home, such as devices out of rooms when it’s time to sleep, periods of time like during meals when there are no devices.”

Of the parents who normally set and enforce rules for social media use, 80% said they’ve temporarily relaxed the rules. Interestingly, nearly half (46%) of respondents reported they are more appreciative of social media’s role in their teens’ quarantine life. Conversely, 39% reported they were “more concerned” and 16% said they felt “the same.”

“There’s some anecdotal evidence that during COVID as parents relaxed their level of control on digital technologies, young people are self-regulating their digital media use, and choosing to get off their phones and do other things,” Coyne said.

Keep communicating

Well-engaged parents check-in with their teens; 64% check in monthly, one-in-three check in weekly or more. Almost half report their teen has, at some point, expressed frustration with his or her relationship with social media. Regarding more serious discussions regarding social media, parents said they speak monthly (35%), a few times a year (24%), weekly (21%), daily (8%), once a year (7%) or never (5%).

“Parents should be balancing privacy vs safety with adolescents,” Coyne said. “Developmentally, adolescents are building their capacity to be autonomous and to learn how to think critically and make safe decisions in online spaces–they need practice doing this! Parents need to encourage conversations about how to use social media and digital technology safely. Monitoring alone will not teach the skills a young person needs to manage the online spaces they will navigate as adults.”

During the pandemic, more screen time can mean more current events. Parents were asked if they’ve discussed how teens should respond to hate speech: 63% said yes and 37% said no.

The report concluded that parents need to research the positive and negative effects of social media use, and to support mental health and well-being. It advised parents to focus less on how much time their teen is on screen, but what it means for teens’ social development, social support, facilitating social connectedness vs. negative interactions, and added, “young people use mobile devices to access forms of entertainment (e.g., movies, music, gaming) that have always been appealing to adolescents, and to communicate with friends. Adolescents’ online risk often reflects offline vulnerabilities, which means it is likely that many of the strategies that guide how we promote healthy development and effective parenting will apply when supporting youth in online activities and experiences.”

Coyne added, “We are all adapting to this new normal and parents should be compassionate and engaged in conversations with their teenagers about how we are all using digital technologies more than usual.”

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