by Michel Hendricks

A social experiment was unleashed on the world in 2007 by the creation of the smartphone. This development, combined with social media, is changing the way we relate to each other. At Life Model Works, we often hear from parents asking us for ideas about parenting in the smart phone era. Because these technologies are so alluring and because time spent with them comes at the expense of other important activities and interactions, we are looking into good guidelines for parents. Dr. Jonathan Haidt has studied the effects of social media on pre-teens and teenagers from the perspective of sociology. From his research, he has 3 simple rules to limit the negative effects of social media: 

  1. All screens out of the bedroom before bedtime. 

My wife, Claudia, is a high school teacher. One question she often asks her students is how many hours of sleep they got the night before. To her surprise, several of her students often sleep for less than three hours. Most often they were either playing video games or looking at social media. The noradrenalin nerves fire in response to novelty and do not fatigue like other brain systems. When children stimulate this system with a constant stream of novelty, they do not sense fatigue, even though it may be 3 AM on a school night. When parents collect devices before bedtime, they help their children stay out of the “novelty loop” and sleep deeply, which is important for adolescent growth and health. 

  1. No social media until high school (maybe even their junior year of high school) 

Rates of hospitalization for self-harm have nearly tripled for American preteen girls, and this increase correlates to the widespread use of social media. Cyberbullying and social media based peer comparison add stress to pre-teens who are already in a difficult time of development. Children’s brains go through a programmed cell death process called apoptosis around age twelve that is like a restructuring for adulthood. Does it seem wise to introduce a peer pressure magnifier exactly when our brains are rewiring? Face-to-face interactions with more than one person are crucial in developing our identities during this confusing time of life. Staring at screens often replaces these relational interactions. Dr. Haidt wisely recommends, “Let kids deal with the awkward beginnings of puberty, and let them master basic skills of face-to-face social interaction before they dive into the social networks. What’s the rush?”  

  1. Work out a screen time budget in a way that helps children develop their own sense of agency and self-control. 

My wife and I enjoy hiking together, and the start of a favorite trail takes us by a playground. I often look at the beautiful little children jumping, swinging and running around. When I look for the parents to see them enjoying the show, often they have their faces buried in their phones. Knowing that our brains are designed to seek the faces of our most important people, we need to protect these important joyful interactions during the time our children live at home, whose brains develop in the presence of the glowing faces of their parents. Putting the entire family on a social media time budget is a good way to protect these relational interactions. Screens have an addictive nature, and too easily family members (including parents) wander off to separate spaces to look at their phones. Employing a time budget of 1-2 hours per day using the Apple Screen Time (or similar Android feature) provides a good limit.  A budget allows our children to maintain social connections without getting stuck in the novelty loop.  

As we learn more from research, these guidelines may change, and we will strive to keep you up to date. We must warn you that your kids may complain about having guidelines on their screen time, but we are confident that later in life they will thank you. And they will tap the breaks on social media with their own children. 

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