Today, most children and teens have access to a digital device of some kind. The older a child is, the more access they gain. Many kids use social media to make friends, connect with the world, socialize, become part of a larger community, learn new skills, or even do projects together.

While social media has been instrumental in connecting people and sharing information, it can also be dangerous and harmful in other ways. Fortunately, parents and caregivers can model good social media behavior and set boundaries to protect their children when engaging online or on social media.

Some risks associated with social media use:

  • Peer pressure, often prevalent on social media, can encourage children and teens to look or behave in a certain way or engage in unsafe behaviors, such as the cinnamon challenge. 
  • Access to images or messages that are not age- or development-appropriate can be confusing for the child.
  • Cyberbullying is also common on social media platforms. Individuals often feel comfortable saying things online that they might not say in real life.  

Warning signs

With the possible negative impacts of social media, it’s important for parents to recognize changes in their child’s normal behavior or interactions with others. Some signs to watch for: 

  • Changes in appetite.
  • Different sleep patterns or sleep disturbances.
  • Avoiding activities previously enjoyed.
  • Avoiding school or certain friends.
  • Changes in social media use – either more sparsely or excessively.
  • Making overt statements such as feeling hopeless, worthless, or wanting to die.

Such changes to a child's typical behavior can often be related to a child’s life or interactions on social media and deserve a deeper look. 

Tips for parents and caregivers

By building on the trust in their relationship with the child, parents can navigate conversations around social media use more effectively. One strategy is for parents to partner with their children on social media accounts. For younger children, this might mean watching YouTube videos together to ensure the content is acceptable and appropriate.

With older children, parents and caregivers can be a bit more hands-off. Have a conversation with your child about following them or their friends on different social media platforms. You might also consider monitoring your child’s web browsing history. 

It is always important to have a conversation about what information is appropriate to post and what to avoid. Stress the importance of not sharing details such as phone number, address, or location.

Develop a family social media plan 

One approach for families to consider is to create a social media “safety plan.” A family plan sets the stage for a discussion around social media use in the home. While the safety plan is intended for children, every family member can benefit from having transparent discussions about social media use and digital responsibility. It is also a way to partner with teenagers around the decision-making process. 

Hopefully, this lends itself to the process of being a partner in safety, too. If something happens in their online world, ideally, the teen will tell the parent instead of dealing with it alone.

A family social media plan could include:

  • Information on the many dangers social media can present.
  • The rules of responsible behavior on social media, such as no bullying.
  • Establishing times that are free of social media use, such as at the dinner table or during family movie night.
  • Limits on how much time can be spent on social media or which platforms can be used. 
  • The use of parental controls as appropriate.

Keep in mind that it’s just as essential for parents to follow through with this plan as it is for kids.  You can learn how to create a personalized plan for your family. This interactive tool was developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics as a way for parents to help children develop healthy online habits and a balance in their lives. 

To hear more about social media, its impact on kids, and safety, check out the "Social Media 101" MindCast podcast, or this blog post as well.

Tanuja P. Gandhi, MD

Tanuja Gandhi, MD, is a staff psychiatrist at Bradley Hospital.