It’s a common scene we are all too familiar with. You can be in a restaurant, a shopping mall, on the sports field, in line at the grocery store, or even in your own home and you notice everyone’s head tilted down, their attention affixed to their smartphone. Let's admit it, we’ve probably all been a part of a similar scene ourselves and heard the speech about the need to stop looking at our screens so much and start looking at each other.
More often than not, what has captured our attention (and the attention of our children) is a text or an email, a news story or a headline, or a funny video or photo of a puppy someone has posted on social media. There is a very fine line between the convenience our smartphones provide for us and the distraction that they can so easily become.
Social media specifically has dominated much of our time online as a culture in the last few years, and even more so in our teenagers. Pew Research, in a report released in 2018 stated, “YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat are the most popular online platforms among teens. Fully 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45% say they are online 'almost constantly.' "
This information speaks to the fact that social media has become a permanent part of our lives, and it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. While there are positive aspects to social media, like connecting with family and friends who live far away, creating a space for people to connect over common interests, and an opportunity for people to express their opinions and creativity with the world, it’s safe to say there are also many negatives associated with its use. Here are a few ways to determine if social media has become a distraction to your child, and if we are honest with ourselves, maybe even to us as parents.
If your child spends more time on their social media accounts than having face-to-face interactions with others, it’s a good sign that social media has become too important. Several studies have shown that young men and women are beginning to define their self-worth through how many likes, loves, shares, or retweets their social media posts receive. The lack of positive feedback from others online has led some people to higher levels of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. The more time our children are spending on these platforms, the higher their chance of succumbing to these types of behaviors. Most smartphones today have screen time tracking tools where you can see a breakdown of how much time per week is spent on social media, online browsing, playing games, etc. Help keep your child accountable by checking their time usage every week. Viewing this data together with our children can largely benefit an ongoing dialogue about our time and how it is best spent.
If your child has more interaction on social media than with their friends and family in daily life then it may be time to reevaluate their social media usage. It is important for their future school and job experience that children learn to have a spoken conversation with others. Making eye contact, listening, responding in kind, and body language are all lost when on social media, so it’s important that they learn these skills by actually being relational with people on a daily basis. There can be positive relationships formed online, but they should not be the only relationships, or the primary ones, in your child’s life.
Have you noticed your child’s homework being neglected? Have they turned down or withdrawn from social events or hanging out with friends? Do they constantly have their phone with them and look down at it during face to face conversations with others? If so, it might be time to investigate and address a social media problem. If your child is shirking their home, school, sports, or social obligations for more time on their phone, that is a red flag to intervene in their lives.
It is imperative that we teach our children to be responsible social media users. We need to train them to not share everything for the world to see, that words and photos cannot be taken back, that what you see on the internet is usually not the whole truth, and that simply being anonymous doesn’t give the right to be mean, hurtful, or cause someone else pain. They need to understand and practice caution to not get caught up in any unhealthy drama, bullying, or situations that could be dangerous or unwise. Instead, we can encourage our kids to use and enjoy social media platforms while spreading joy, truth, and love to those they connect with.
Most adults struggle with self-control in some respect, so we cannot hand a child or teenager a smartphone and assume they automatically know how to self regulate their time on it. As parents, it is our responsibility to teach our children self-control and what is a good use of their time. Setting time limits on screen usage is another great way to teach our children when it’s appropriate to be on their phone and when they need to put it away. As with most things, children will take their cue from us as parents so we need to set an example worthy of following.
Remember that time is something we can never take back, so let’s make the most of our time spent when we are together with one another.
For one entire day (yes, the whole day!) have everyone in the family put their screens away. All tablets, phones, TVs, and computers should be turned off or put out of sight and see how you can spend that time engaging with each other instead. The first few hours will be hard, but stick it out and you will be surprised at the results. We would love to hear your experiences with the Family Challenge, so please share your stories with us!