Social Media is Here to Stay

So much of the discussion about social media and children seems to be of the “Should we expose them to it?” ilk — but that seems to me to miss the point. Social media is part of the fabric of our lives now, and it will only be more so as our children grow up. Our job as parents is to teach them to use it safely — and to make the most of it.

Yes, there are dangers: Online predators, cyberbullying, and Internet addiction, to name a few. Distraction is a real concern for me; with so much to look at online, it’s easy to not get homework (or anything else) done, and it’s easy to escape actual human interaction. We know that watching fast-paced cartoons can mess up the executive function of young children — which is bad, because executive function is crucial to judgment, social skills, learning and behavior. I worry that bouncing around on the Internet (or just being on Twitter!) could be the equivalent of watching a fast-paced cartoon and lead to similar problems. And with an epidemic of obesity here in the U.S., we need to be very mindful of the amount of time our children spend in sedentary activities like being on a computer. But there are also benefits. With the Internet and social media, the world — and everyone in it — can be at your fingertips. There are incredible opportunities for learning, connection, and creativity.

Think of it like …cars. When they were invented, I’m sure there were people who said, “Better to stick with horses.” Certainly, cars have caused injury, death, and plenty of pollution. But they have also revolutionized our lives. And just as we teach our children to use cars safely and judiciously, we need to teach them to use the Internet and social media with care.

Here are a few tips for parents:

• If you aren’t familiar with social media, get familiar with it. You can’t teach about something you don’t know. If you are already using social media, set a good example by how you use it.

• Spend time online together. Show children how to search, and how to evaluate sites. Find sites that encourage creativity.

• Talk with them about what they should and shouldn’t do online. Make sure that they understand that anything they do on the Internet stays there forever — and that they must always be honest and kind.

• When they are young, monitor what they do online. (You wouldn’t let them drive a car alone, right?) Know their email password, and be able to see what they are doing on social media sites. When they are older (mid-teen and older), they should be allowed more privacy—but by then you will have taught them what they need to know.

• Make sure your kids spend plenty of time off the computer, doing things like being active, hanging
out with friends, and reading books.

For more advice on helping children navigate the online space, check out Common Sense Media,

Dr. Claire McCarthy is a primary care pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children’s Hospital. She is also an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and a senior editor at Harvard Health Publications. She and her husband are raising five children, ranging in age from six to 21.