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Why Social Media is Not Smart for Middle School Kids

Tuesday, 17 December, 2019

Melanie Hempe

I really love middle school kids. I have raised four of them! If you have been through middle school parenting, you may have noticed what I see: Strange things seem to happen to a tween’s brain the first day they walk into middle school. One might sum up their main goals in life this way:

  • To be funny at all costs. (Hence, the silly bathroom jokes, talking at inappropriate times in class, and the “anything it takes to be popular” attitude.)
  • To focus on SELF — their clothes, their nose, their body, and their hair.
  • To try new things. They are playing “dress up” with their identity, trying on things to see what fits. They are impulsive and scattered, they are up and they are down, and it even seems that they have regressed in their development on their quest for independence.

As the parent, you are changing, too, as you enter the stage of parenting when you quickly depart from the naïve platform of “My child would never…” to the realization that, “I’m sure my child did that. I’m sorry, and please excuse his behavior, he is going through a phase.

Your list of daily parenting instructions may include statements like:

  • “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!”
  • “You’re acting like a 2-year-old!”
  • “Stop flipping that bottle!”
  • “Stop burping the ABC’s!”
  • “How many times do I have to tell you not to use that word?”
  • “What were you thinking?”

Then it happens: Maybe because we are exhausted from their constant begging for a phone, or because we think that all their friends have one, or because we want to upgrade ours to the latest model…we cave. We act on impulse. Our brain seems to regress like theirs, and we give them our old smartphone.

And with that one little decision comes the world of social media access—something we haven’t thought about and something none of us is prepared for. Because the midbrain is reorganizing itself and risk-taking is high and impulse control is low, I can’t imagine a worse time in a child’s life to have access to social media than middle school. Here are just a few reasons why:

  1. Social media was not designed for them. A tween’s underdeveloped frontal cortex can’t manage the distraction nor the temptations that come with social media use. While you start teaching responsible use of tech now, know that you will not be able to teach the maturity that social media requires. Like trying to make clothes fit that are way too big, they will use social media inappropriately until they are older and it fits them better.
  2. Social media is an entertainment technology. It does not make your child smarter or more prepared for real life; nor is it necessary for healthy social development. It is pure entertainment attached to a marketing platform extracting bits and pieces of personal information and preferences from your child every time they use it, not to mention hours of their time and attention.
  3. A tween’s “more is better” mentality is a dangerous match for social media. Do they really have 1,456 friends? Do they really need to be on it nine hours a day? Social media allows (and encourages) them to overdo their friend connections like they tend to overdo other things in their lives.
  4. Social media is an addictive form of screen entertainment. Like video game addiction, early use can set up future addiction patterns and habits.
  5. Social media replaces face-to-face interaction with peers, a skill that they will need to practice to be successful in real life.
  6. Social media can cause teens to lose connection with family and instead view friends as their foundation. Since the cognitive brain is still being formed, the need for your teen to be attached to your family is just as important now as when she was younger. Make sure that attachment is strong. While she needs attachments to her friends, she needs healthy, family attachment more.
  7. Social media use represents lost potential for teens. While one can argue that there are certain benefits of social media for teens, the costs are very high during the teen years when their brain development is learning new things. It is easy for teens to waste too much time and too much of their brain in a digital world. We know from many studies that it is nearly impossible for them to balance it all on their own.

How Can Kids Slow Down?

First, we need to slow down and rethink what we are allowing our kids to do. We need to understand the world of social media and how teens use it differently than adults. Here are a few tips.

  1. Delay access. The longer parents delay access, the more time a child will have to mature so that he or she can use technology more wisely as a young adult. Delaying access also places a greater importance on developing personal authentic relationships first.
  2. Follow their accounts. Social media privacy is a lie. Nothing is private in the digital world, and so it should not be private to parents. Make sure privacy settings are in place but know that those settings can give you a false sense of security. Encourage your teen to have private conversations in person or via a phone call if they don’t want you to read it on social media.
  3. Create family accounts. Create family accounts instead of individual teen accounts. This allows kids to keep up with friends in a safer social media environment.
  4. Allow social media only on large screens. If you allow it at all, only let your teens use their social media accounts on home computers or laptops in plain view. This provides necessary accountability for what they view online. When it is used on a small private screen that fits in their pocket, there is greater potential for bad choices.
  5. Keep a sharp eye on the clock; they will not. Do you know how much time your child spends on social media a day? Know this, and work to reduce the amount of time your child spends there. The average teen spends nine hours a day connected to social media. Set one time each day for three days a week that your child can check her social media. Do they benefit from more time than that?
  6. Plan face-to-face time with their friends. Remember that they don’t need 842 friends; four-to-six close friends are enough for healthy social development. Help them learn how to plan real, in-person, social get-togethers. Consider things like a leave-phones-at- the-door party, a home movie night, bowling, board games, cooking pizza, or hosting a bonfire. They crave these social gatherings so encourage them to invite friends over and help them (as needed) to organize the event.
  7. Spend more real non-tech time together. Teens who are strongly attached to their parents and family experience more overall happiness and success in life. They need us now more than ever. It is easy to detach from them: Teens can be annoying! But attaching to family allows them to detach from the social media drama. Your child needs to feel like she can come home and leave the drama of her social world behind for a few hours. Your child wants you to help her say no to social media and yes to more time with the family. She is craving moments to disconnect, so make plans and encourage this at home.

Don’t give that smartphone all the power in your home; help tweens choose healthier forms of entertainment. They have the rest of their lives to be entertained by social media, but only a limited time with you.

To learn how to be a ScreenStrong family, go to ScreenStrong.com to get your copy of our latest book The ScreenStrong Solution: How to Free Your Child from Addictive Screen Habits.” This simple, step-by-step guide will walk you through the process of reclaiming your kids from digital devices so you can get your kids back and reconnect your family!

Posted on Psychology Today on Mar 26, 2017. Updated in September, 2019.