If you have a child with a smartphone, you have probably noticed that there is little formal guidance available from professionals about how you should handle social media use by tweens and teens. This topic is top of mind for me as it has recently come up in several cases where I serve as the parenting coordinator. I have been researching how to assist parents in developing a cohesive plan for their teen’s use of smartphones and not finding much beyond anecdotal information. However, a few months ago, the American Psychological Association (“APA”) released its, “Health Advisory on Social Media Use in Adolescence” (“Advisory”). The Advisory is now on my list of recommended reading for all parents embarking on the smartphone transition with tweens and teens. 

As I read the Advisory, my impression of the recommendations (of which there are 10) was that they are largely based on common sense. In other words, none of the recommendations were all that surprising. It is worth noting that this is a quickly developing area of research about which there have not yet been many psychological studies (so parents stay tuned, because the recommendations are likely to evolve as more research is done). Here are the points from the recommendations that stood out to me:

  • Social media use by adolescents is neither inherently harmful or helpful (in other words, it is what you make of it). 
  • Social media platforms can offer support and a sense of community for LGBTQIA+ adolescents, which they may be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
  • It also offers much-needed connection among adolescents during times of isolation (i.e., a pandemic). 
  • Every child is unique and all children develop at their own pace, so parents need to assess their child’s maturity in making decisions about social media use; what is appropriate for one 15-year old female may not be appropriate for all 15-year old females. 
  • The need/desire for attention, feedback, and reinforcement from peers are growing in early adolescence, BUT self-control is not fully developed until adulthood (i.e., age 25), which makes parent monitoring and limit-setting essential for adolescents. 
  • Parents need to be mindful of their own social media smartphone use in front of their children so as to lead by example. I revised this point to be about smartphone use generally, rather than social media use in particular, because if you constantly have your phone in your hand at the dinner table (whether it be for social media use or work emails), then chances are your teen will too. 
  • To reduce the risk of psychological harm to adolescents, exposure to illegal, psychologically maladaptive behavior, or cyberhate material should be minimized. This is done via parental controls/monitoring, but also by training adolescents in digital citizenship/digital literacy.  

I did find the Advisory to be somewhat lacking in specific how-to guidance for parents, primarily on the point about digital literacy for teens. Other than discussing such matters with a teen, how does a parent go about teaching digital literacy? Schools may be incorporating some of this into curriculum, but maybe not all schools. I found this 5 minute tutorial from the U.S. Department of Education on digital literacy (which is designed for educators who will be teaching students about digital literacy, but the information is just as helpful to parents wanting to teach their children). Also, this blog article by Tiffany Whitehead, a school librarian in Louisiana, offers great information.

This article authored by Courtney Hamer Smith, board certified specialist in family law, Collaborative Divorce practitioner, parenting coordinator, and mom of two. 

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