Facing the Challenges of Screen Time

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Facing the Challenges of Screen Time

“Please tell me what to do about my daughter’s constant use of her cell phone!”

“My son throws a fit every time I tell him to get off the computer.”

“How many hours a day should I let my kid be online?”

Everyone working with kids and teens these days is constantly being asked the same questions. Questions about cyber-bullying, sexting, Internet safety, tweeting, Tumblr, Snapchat and lurking predators. It’s a brave new world and social media isn’t going away.

In fact, part of what makes this issue so overwhelming is that it’s an ever-changing, complicated, moving target. New social platforms, videogames, and apps appear every week. How can you keep up when most of today’s teens can run circles around their parents when it comes to computers?

What Parents of Tweens and Teens Should Know

Do your best to stay abreast of the newest trends.

According to research by Pew in 2015, Facebook continues to be the most popular social media and networking site used by teenagers and young adults aged 12 to 24 years. Although 74% of young people surveyed use Facebook, two platforms have now gained increasing popularity. You should know about them: Instagram (59% report using) and Snapchat (57%). For 16 year olds, Instagram is now more important than Facebook.

Instagram was founded in 2010 (and later acquired by Facebook) and focuses on photos and videos. The user takes a photo or video, edits it to their liking, adds a short caption, ands posts it. Voila! Your son or daughter’s photo is now public. Other users can “like” a photo, share it with others, and make comments on it.

The social currency has changed – popularity is measured in “likes”.

What makes you “popular” on sites like Facebook or Instagram is amassing hundreds or even thousands of “followers” and likes. Unfortunately, dramatic, shocking or suggestive photos attract lots of attention—and not all of it is the kind of attention you want your son or daughter to get. (The default setting on Instagram makes posts visible to the public. Here is a link with Instagram safety tips).

Kids can also be naïve, trusting that their friends would never share their photos or comments with others. Unfortunately, once uploaded, images or words posted impulsively (a common quality of adolescents) can’t be taken back. We’ve personally worked with kids who’ve been kicked out of school because of posts that other kids innocently shared—photos of that teen using drugs or doing something else illegal. In other cases, sexually provocative photos have damaged reputations, forced kids to change schools, and provoked suicide attempts.

Another rapidly growing app is Snapchat, perhaps invented because of some of the problems stemming from Instagram posts that got kids (and adults) in trouble. Users can put a time limit on the pictures they send before they disappear (or seem to). Now your teen can send an embarrassing photo to a few friend—then poof it is gone, so others (including your parents) don’t see the post.

The problem is—if someone took a screen shot of your post before it disappeared, then voila! It’s back and potentially public—and problematic. And Snapchat is just one of the so-called self-destructing or secret apps.

These are just a few current examples but now there are so many more apps and websites that kids use or know about that most parents will need regular updates about what is currently vogue. A good reference to bookmark on your computer is Common Sense Media which is an excellent, constantly updated resource for age appropriate movies, books, and all things educational.

Don’t forget that the “computer” your child uses the most is now a cell phone.

When the Pew researchers looked in 2013, they found that 25% of teens were accessing the Internet via mobile devices. In two short years, that number climbed to 93%. Teens and young adults spend more time online via their mobile devices than any other age group and about the same amount of time as on their computers.

How much time is the average 16-24-year-old spending daily on their mobile?

The answer is almost 200 minutes per day, and most if not all of that is when you are not looking. It was far easier for a parent to know and monitor their kids’ behavior online when it was via a computer screen in the kitchen, wasn’t it?

Here is what we know about how average young people are spending their screen time: They are constantly texting or checking Instagram, Facebook, What’s App and Snapchat. When asked by parents what they are doing, the favorite retorts that I hear multiple times each week are, “I need it to do my homework” or “No one else has limits!”

Boys and girls are not always doing the same things online.

Teenage girls like to use social media sites for sharing more than the guys do. Girls particularly like the more visual platforms like Instagram and Tumblr. In contrast, boys are more likely than girls to be playing video games by themselves or with other friends (and strangers) online.

What are some tips to increase our kids’ safety?

There are minimum ages for the use of different games and social platforms. Don’t let your kids bend the rules. If they lie about their age, it is an instant indicator that they need more monitoring and protection. You need to be 13 to sign up for Instagram. It is safer to have them wait.

In the meantime, make sure your child’s privacy settings (on whatever app) make postings only available to friends and family, and turn off geotagging on the camera. Use a 20-something young adult as a consultant to help familiarize you with any and all privacy and safety options on any media platform your child or teen is using. Have your kid show you what they are posting and why. Listen and ask questions. (Don’t just freak out or judge–do that later, privately.)

After educating yourself more about the newest trends, talk to your kids about the appropriate use of technology and the Internet. The web is an extraordinary resource, but it requires responsible decision-making and caution. We all taught our kids not to get in a car with strangers, didn’t we? We need to educate and then remind them about not revealing names, addresses, and current locations with internet strangers either.

Be crystal clear about your family’s rules and about specific consequences for failure to abide by the rules. There are numerous examples of contracts that parents can adapt to fit the particulars of your kids and your values. Let them know that you will be regularly monitoring their use—not every moment or every day but occasionally and unpredictably. It’s essential to know your kid’s username and password for various sites.

Expect your teen to grumble about this but do it anyway. Studies show that parental “involvement” can make a big difference. Don’t you usually check to make sure they are going where they say they are going and that there is adult supervision at said location? The same principle should apply. Even when we trust our kids, it is a parents’ job to keep them safe and out of harm’s way. It’s just that times have changed. Now we’re trying to keep them safe from the wild west of the whole wide world.

Wow. No wonder parents are exhausted.

Don MacMannis, Ph.D. and Debra Manchester MacMannis, M.S.W. are a team both at home and at the office. Married for more than thirty years and parents of two sons, they are psychotherapists who have simultaneously served as directors of the Family Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara. In addition to nationwide lectures on families, they have provided postgraduate training to hundreds of therapists.

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