How can I
- set appropriate limits for my family’s online activity?
- make sure my child is using social media safely and appropriately?
- talk to my child about how to stay safe online?
What Are the Pros and Cons of Internet and Media Use?
A common challenge facing parents these days is children’s access to online content and media through computers, cell phones, gaming consoles, and other electronic devices. Cell phone and media use among adolescents and teens has grown rapidly over the past decade. A census done by Common Sense Media (https://www.commonsensemedia.org/) states that 53% of children have their own smart phone by the age of 11 and that 69% have them by the time they are 12. That means a majority of middle schoolers have online access.
Unlimited access to this vast virtual world has definite risks for children. Whether intentionally or by accident, they can find and share topics, information, images, and other content that can cause confusion and harm. They can connect with others, including strangers, who may be unsafe. And unlike face-to-face interaction, communicating through an electronic device can make people feel bolder and more likely to interact in ways that may be hurtful or inappropriate.
The technology trend isn’t all bad, however. Experts say there can be both benefits and risks to Internet and media use for tweens. A lot depends on adults and children working together to agree on rules, establish a healthy balance of activities, and set appropriate limits and boundaries for media use.
Parents and caregivers often ask themselves, How much time online is too much? What are the benefits and risks? How can I set limits and help my child use media safely and appropriately?
This chart lists some of the potential benefits and risks of internet and media use for children and tweens.
How Do Middle Schoolers Spend Their Time Online?
The Internet provides endless opportunities and resources for information, entertainment, and communication. “Plugged in” tweens have a virtual world of their own at their fingertips and a huge range of ways to communicate, from phone, text and chat, to photo-sharing, video streaming, gaming, and social media apps.
It’s challenging for concerned parents and caregivers to know the healthy balance of allowing their child independence online while monitoring their activity and making sure they are using these tools appropriately.
In addition to typical online activities like searching for information, doing research for school assignments, and browsing online stores, teens spend most of their time online doing the following:
Streaming TV and Movies
As for adults, watching TV and movies online is very popular among teens. Video streaming sites like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have turned smartphones, tablets, and laptops into portable TVs. Teens have access to a huge variety of TV shows and movies of their choice, including some that are geared toward mature audiences.
According to the website, Internetmatters.com, 81% of children under 18 regularly play online games. The numbers are increasing each year, and the age of children who play online games is getting younger. After setting up a free account, users can access a wide variety of games designed for various age groups and maturity levels. Gaming platforms allow direct messaging and voice chat, so players can connect and socialize with friends, as well as strangers.
Social media platforms are websites or apps that allow users to create and share content and connect with one another. With a free account users can post messages, photos, videos (recorded or live), and others can follow, react, comment, and send messages back and forth. Most social media sites require users to be age 13 or older. Each site offers various levels of privacy and security settings.
This chart lists popular social media sites used by teens and describes how they work.
Users create their own “channel” and share videos (recorded or live-streamed)
Allows viewers to subscribe, post reactions and comments
Can be made public or viewable by a select audience
Free video sharing platform
Users can shoot, edit and share short videos (recorded or live-streamed)
Allows users to follow, like, and comment
Account can be public or private
Photo / video sharing service, used mainly on mobile devices
Users can post photos, videos (recorded or live-streamed)
Allows direct messaging
Account can be public or private
Users create an account and share photos, links, videos (recorded and live-streamed) on their page
Other users can request to “friend” the user’s account to be granted access to content
Allows direct messaging and voice/video calling
Users create a profile and post short, 140-character “tweets,” as well as photos, links, or videos
Other users can follow the account
Allows direct messaging
Instant messaging application
Allows users to create groups of invited people and send videos, photos, or text messages to one another
Messages are viewable for a short time, determined by the sender; however content can be saved using “screen shot” or other functions
Voice, video, and text chat app, primarily used among video gamers, but open to other topics
Chat “communities” can be small or large and can be created for a specific group of invited people, or open to the public for a specific interest topic
Instant messaging/Video/Voice call app
Uses wifi instead of cell phone data, so it reduces the cost of messaging.
allows users to send message and photos to a group
Available through computers, cell phones, tablets, and gaming consoles, like Xbox and Playstation
Free online games include Fortnite, Minecraft, Among Us, World of Warcraft
Users can invite one another join each other’s games and communicate via text and voice chat
Platforms allow credit card purchases of virtual items (weapons, armor, etc.) to be used in the game
For more information, check out this comprehensive list of social media platforms (including recommended age ranges).
Why It Matters
There’s no doubt digital technology and devices play a starring role in our lives these days. The Internet provides round-the-clock access to an endless supply of human connections and content for our own education, entertainment, or escape. Even many adults have trouble knowing how to avoid the pitfalls and set limits for themselves!
Because of their natural stage of development, there are several factors that make the Internet and social media especially attractive and risky for many tweens:
- They are at a stage of life when they are discovering, creating and shaping their identity.
- They often crave connection, acceptance, approval, and attention from others.
- They are often focused on physical appearance, body image, and being attractive to others.
- They are developing curiosity and interest in mature topics, including sexuality.
- They may be unaware of risks of sharing private and personal information, and other related dangers.
- They may be unlikely to set limits for themselves.
Just like in the “real world,” there are things parents and caregivers can do to protect their children from risks and harm online. Start with educating yourself, communicating with your child about the risks and benefits, and agreeing on consistent rules, and a healthy balance for online activity.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula for deciding the right amount of media use for any adult, child, teen, or family. A “family screen audit” can help family members work together to determine the balance and limits that work for them.
Because it’s likely that all family members use media to some extent, all family members participate in the audit. This way, children do not feel unfairly singled out or blamed.
The family screen audit involves each family member responding to a set of questions about their screen time and media use. Each family member answers individually, and then all members share and discuss their answers.
Sample questions for a family screen audit.
- How much TV do you watch per day?
- How much time do you spend on the computer for study or for work?
- How much time do you spend on your cell phone or mobile devices each day?
- How much leisure time do you spend online versus offline?
- Do you ever misrepresent yourself or your life online?
- What are the top 3 activities or sites you spend time on online?
- Do you feel you are getting enough exercise and time outdoors?
- While you are working or studying, how often do you allow yourself to be interrupted by social media (responding to texts or private emails, checking social media apps).
- How early in the morning and until what time at night are you usually online?
- How often do you use the Internet to procrastinate or avoid other obligations?
- What are 4 activities (2 indoor and 2 outdoor) that you would do with the extra time if you were online less?
- Which social media apps do you use? What do you feel are the pros and cons of using social media?
You may choose to create a simple screen time log book or tracker, and have family members log the type and duration of their screen time over the course of a week. Here is a sample.
Once the audit is complete, the family agrees on a set of screen time and technology rules. The suggestions in the following section can help you support your child’s safety online, and mentor them around the benefits and risks of media use.
You may be wondering if your child is even ready to have a smartphone. If that is the case, see the resources below to help you decide.
Connect & Communicate:
Recognizing that social media is a part of life for many tweens (and adults), it’s still important to help your child understand there are risks along with the benefits. As parents and caregivers, it can be challenging to bring up this conversation without seeming judgmental or hypocritical. After all, most adults spend time on screens and use media ourselves!
If you have concerns about your child’s screen time and online activity, it’s important to consider how much time you and other adults at home spend on screen and using media. If you want to reduce the amount of time your children spend on screens, you can lead by example.
Start the Conversation
Invite the family to try the “family screen audit” in the previous section: I’d like to be more aware about how much time we spend on screens. Will you try this exercise with me to help us understand our habits?
Focus on goals for spending time together: I’d like to spend more time together as a family at home. Let’s put our phones away after dinner and shoot some hoops.
Ask questions to find out what they already know: Have you talked about online safety, cyberbullying, or sexting at school? What have you learned about?
Focus on Safety: I want to make sure you’re safe online. Can we talk about the social media apps you’re using?
Share real information: I read an article about teen girls and social media. / I saw a news report about using cell phones before bed.
Online Safety Guidelines to Share with Your Teen
- Set privacy settings high, so that only trusted friends and family can see posts.
- Remember that videos and photos can be downloaded, edited, and shared by others who may want to cause embarrassment or harm, including strangers.
- Be careful about who you accept as friends/followers.
- Never agree to meet someone in person that you met online.
- If someone sends inappropriate photos or content, tell an adult.
- Never post anything (photos or comments) that you would not want to be seen by a parent, teacher or another adult.
- Tell an adult if you are experiencing cyberbullying.
Setting Screen Time Limits
Once you’ve opened the conversation and completed a family audit, you can start discussing changes in habits and setting limits. You may want to include the following in your discussion:
- how much screen time is allowed per day
- how much gaming or TV is allowed during the week and on the weekends
- whether cell phones and computers are allowed in bedrooms
- whether to establish times where screens aren’t allowed (e.g. at the dinner table, no cell phone during homework, when guests are over, or in the morning before school or work).
Once all family members agree on the new “rules,” try them out for a week and then check in to see how everyone feels. What changes has everyone noticed (both positive and negative)? What is / isn’t working? What needs to be modified?
You may get some pushback from younger family members at first. Support the transition by replacing screen time with activities and other things that interest them (sports, hobbies, travel, shopping, etc.), and remind them that less screen time will benefit them in the long run.
Set Positive Examples
Modeling and talking to your middle schooler about good habits for social media use is one of the best ways you can show your child safe and acceptable behavior online. Here are some examples of positive examples you can set:
- Pay attention to privacy settings–choose carefully who you allow to see what you share
- Immediately report trolling, cyberbullying, inappropriate, or hateful content, posts, images, or comments. Block users who engage in posting or sharing this type of content.
- Set boundaries for online contacts: Don’t accept requests from strangers.
- Demonstrate respectful online communication: If you wouldn’t say it to a person’s face; don’t post it online.
- Treat all content like it’s public. Even with privacy settings, others can still save and share information and pictures you post. Tip: If you’d be okay with anyone seeing it; including your teacher, your neighbor, or your child’s teacher; it’s probably okay to post.
Additional Tips and Ideas
The American Academy of Pediatricians offers resources to help families develop a Family Media Use Plan: www.healthychildren.org/MediaUsePlan
Set parental controls on computers, tablets, and cell phones. On most devices, you can set times when the Internet can’t be accessed, block access to inappropriate or adult content, as well as require parental permission for downloading apps via automatic text message to your phone. There is also a range of parental control apps available for purchase: https://www.safewise.com/resources/parental-control-filters-buyers-guide/
Remind your child to check the privacy controls on their social media accounts frequently. Stress that anything they post can be downloaded, edited, and shared by others, including strangers, who may want to cause them embarrassment or harm.
If your child’s school allows them to bring home a laptop, make sure your child uses that one for doing homework, as school computers have special software installed that limit access to social media and inappropriate content.
“Friend” and “follow” your child’s social media accounts. This can be a way to connect with them and learn more about their interests and social life, as well as to monitor for any issues or problems.
Set goals for physical activity as a family. Decide on a destination you all want to reach together virtually (Disney World). Find out how many miles to the destination from your home. Then challenge family members to keep track of the miles they walk/run/bike each week. Plan a fun family reward when you reach the number of miles to your destination.
Contact & Collaborate:
- Find out what your child’s school curriculum provides for online safety and digital citizenship programming. Attend any parent-focused meetings, as they may share useful information.
- Because middle schoolers often compare their media access to that of their friends, it may be helpful to compare notes with their friends’ parents. Find out what they do and don’t allow and how they keep tabs on their child online.
- Local youth-serving organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Club, may offer after school programs in digital citizenship and online safety.
- Help your teen develop a network of trusted adults–relatives, family friends, coaches–and encourage your teen to go to them if they need help or have questions or problems.
- Outschool.com has courses for parents and children to learn more about internet safety. Check out this example for kids 9-13 years old. https://outschool.com/classes/internet-safety-make-safer-choices-online-YWXQTxOo#abkw51ckd4
Explore these resources to learn more about online safety and media use.
Safewise: How to Keep Your Teen or Tween safe Online
Internet Matters: Online Safety Advice for Teens
Youtube Video: Teen Voices: Oversharing Your Digital Footprint
Internet Matters: Expert Advice on Gaming Addiction
Cell Phone Readiness
Understand (website): A quick reference to help determine if your child is ready for a smartphone.
Parenting Modern Teens (website): A checklist to help decide readiness.
Better Screen Time (website): Is My Teen Ready for a Cell Phone? Guidelines for helping you decide.
Child Mind Institute (website): When Should I Get My Child a Phone?
Washington Post (article): Is Your Child Ready for a Cell Phone? Independency Milestones that might help indicate if they are ready.
Podcast: Defending Digital Advice for Parents
Their Own Devices Podcast