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Teens and technology: managing cell phone and social media usage

Tuesday, February 6, 2018
By Sara B. Page, MD, for KidsFirst

It happened insidiously in my household. The cell phone was purchased in middle school, allowing me to get in touch with my pre-teen, particularly since she spends time in two households. And I’ll be honest, it allowed me track her whereabouts. But suddenly I found this child of mine making music videos and posting them online. Suffice it to say the lyrics of the music were not of nursery rhyme quality, and BOOM. Suddenly images of my child singing Beyoncé were online, leaving their digital footprint.  

As a pediatrician and a parent of teenagers, I worry every day about the short and long term effects of electronic devices and social media on our loved ones and our culture. It's true, I love my smart phone and the convenience it provides me. And I'm aware of the many benefits of this technology and medium. But sometimes I worry about the habitual use of it, and how quickly it adds up. In fact, recent research shows young adults may spend more than 5 hours per day on their phones. As worrisome, the use of social media may be contributing to increasing rates of depression, particularly in female adolescents. So let's tackle this topic and consider a few important aspects. 

What age is appropriate for purchase of a device? That’s really up to the parents. Most children wouldn’t turn down a phone, but do they need one? Is it a matter of safety? Can they use it responsibly? Will they comply with rules that the family devises? I certainly don't have all the answers to these questions, nor do I think the answer is the same for every family and tween or teen. But talking about these issues is crucial in determining what is "right" for your family.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends making a Family Media Plan. This allows you to outline and customize specific rules for your family. And it starts the discussion of what is acceptable use of a device. It includes topics such as where it is acceptable to use a cell phone, when are times when the cell phone needs to be put away, what time do devices need to be turned off, how to balance on and off-line time, as well as what are appropriate manners and digital citizenship. Other families I've seen have created their own contracts for family members to sign, which outline what the expectations are.

Electronic devices and social media are here to stay. Learning to use them responsibly and in moderation is often a challenge.

Importantly, media plans address issues of safety. It startles me how few families I talk to have addressed issues of safety in using social media in the pre-teen years. It's crucial to understand and use privacy settings on all sites, avoid giving out personal information online (e.g. school, address, contact information), and specifically discuss which photos and other media are OK to share online. Often I find myself saying, “do not post anything that you would be embarrassed about if it ended up on a billboard downtown.” Putting computers in open locations like the kitchen or living room can increase accountability to agreed upon rules of engagement.

Sometimes it’s hard to stringently monitor our children's use of the internet, but there are more and more convenient ways for parents to block inappropriate use. Most phone carriers allow you to login and manage texting and device usage. It is definitely worth checking into your phone plan and what options are available. Some carriers also offer content filters, which may block sites that are inappropriate, or usage restrictions, which set caps on the number of texts or downloads available to specific users, or restrict usage to certain times of day.

Electronic devices and social media are here to stay. Learning to use them responsibly and in moderation is often a challenge. Some obvious ways to set a good example for our children include not using the phone while driving or eating. Instead, use those fleeting moments to connect with your child, talking about their favorite part of the day.

Sara B. Page, MD, is an assistant professor of pediatrics in the Duke Department of Pediatrics in Durham, NC.



Related resources

Talking to Kids and Teens About Social Media and Sexting - Tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics
[American Academy of Pediatrics]

Cell Phone Parenting
[Common Sense Media]

Kids and Mobile Phones
[FDA Consumer Information]

Have Cell Phones Destroyed a Generation?
[The Atlantic]

No, Smartphones are Not Destroying a Generation
[Psychology Today]

“KidsFirst” is a blog, hosted by the Duke Department of Pediatrics, that provides high quality information to families on a wide range of important child health topics.