Real life vs. social media

By UnityPoint Health on Tuesday, October 9, 2018


 How you can help your child navigate social media safely

This blog was written by Kevin Vermeer, President and CEO of Unity Point Health:

Like most new parents, I really hoped the nurses would send my wife and I home with a manual for our new baby. (Spoiler alert — they didn’t.) Now, as a first-time grandpa, that manual should be as vast as the Internet itself.

With the surge of social media, families today have a unique set of challenges. That includes knowing where and when to set boundaries for kids before social media becomes a problem.

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Jeff Kerber, Ph.D, with UnityPoint Health – Counseling and Psychiatry, offers parents guidance on helping children navigate life online and off.

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In today’s social media heavy society, equipping your child with the skills to navigate life digitally can be equally as important as prepping them for life in the real world. Teaching them proper online etiquette, social responsibility and a healthy perspective can make a huge difference in whether social media is helpful or harmful.

If your child is requesting a social media account, or already has one, Dr. Kerber discusses some of the benefits, challenges, and considerations to think about before they log on next.

When is a child “ready” to have a social media account?

Dr. Kerber says the effect social media has on a child depends largely on the child’s ability to self-regulate their emotions and the parent’s attentiveness.

“Depending on the child’s emotional competence — how will they deal if no one comments on their Instagram posts? — anyone under the age of 13 should not be allowed to access social media without supervision,” says Dr. Kerber.

In fact, most social media policies list 13 years old as the minimum age to open an account.

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Dr. Kerber says parents should also honestly evaluate the status of their relationship with their child before diving into the social media world to ensure a positive experience. Are they involved enough to notice when their child needs attention? How do they model social media behavior? Are they more plugged into their phone than kids?

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“We can’t prevent disappointments in our children’s social lives, but we can help them keep a healthy perspective,” Dr. Kerber says. “When kids are struggling with that, and they most always are, social media can make those distortions worse — quickly. The parent needs to ensure the child takes an emotional breath of fresh air often enough to keep a clear mind about how they feel about and see themselves and others. That requires a parent’s presence and focus as a social media life guard.”

Dr. Kerber offers some guiding principles for teaching kids about smart social media engagement that apply both offline and online:

  • Follow the golden rule. Treat others as you want to be treated. 
  • Teach kids to walk before they run. Kids struggle with relationships and the associated misunderstandings and bruised feelings. We shouldn’t expect a 12- or 13-year-old who can’t hold a five-minute conversation with friends or adults to be skilled navigators of social media.
  • Social connection equals survival. Kids use social media to organize themselves both internally — how they see themselves — and externally — how they see themselves fitting in with others. Once they’ve experienced social media, it is very difficult for them to imagine a satisfying, safe and connected life without it. 

What’s an appropriate amount of time for a child to spend on social media?

Dr. Kerber says if a child has other interests and naturally regulates their online time, then an arm’s-length approach may work just fine. If, however, they’re compulsively checking their feeds, a more structured approach is helpful.

“There are various studies that attempt to quantify healthy vs. unhealthy screen time. They eventually validate the common-sense wisdom of moderation. However, the more kids have their noses buried in a screen, the less engaged they become with the real world. There’s a general deterioration, or at least delay, that occurs in their attention span, ability to empathize and delay gratification,” he says.

Need help recognizing when social media usage is negatively impacting your child? Here are some what activities and strategies that can help.

vermeerKevin Vermeer assumed the role President and CEO of UnityPoint Health (formerly Iowa Health System) in January 2016. He's served the organization in a variety of leadership roles since 2000. Vermeer has over two decades of experience managing financial operations for leading health care organizations. Vermeer participates in community organizations, such as the Iowa Business Council and Greater Des Moines Committee. Vermeer also serves on the Healthiest State Initiative Board.