How much is too much social media for our kids?

If you are raising kids in the smartphone generation, you deserve a medal! Seriously, because it’s not easy. In fact, it could well be argued that for our generation of parents, it’s like a race against the clock to win the hearts and minds of our kids before the wave of social media sweeps them out to sea. Setting and keeping limits on our kids’ online worlds has never been more important.

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As the school year kicks off, a few schools around the country have taken the bold move to introduce a total ban on the personal use of smartphones during school hours. Some might view the all-out ban as a little heavy-handed, but it comes off the back of a very solid and growing body of research. The research shows that our kids’ relationship with social media is in fact having an extremely negative effect on their mental health and well-being[1]. It seems that the rise of anxiety, depression and suicidality among our young people has finally got us asking a tough question – how much is too much social media?

Ask any parent – setting and keeping tech limits takes guts and determination. So late last year when Facebook announced their new app, Facebook Messenger Kids, a social media app designed specifically for kids aged 6-13, it was met by parents and health professionals with some fairly fierce resistance. Of course the app looks harmless enough. In fact, it’s good enough to eat, dripping with donuts and unicorns and covered in sprinkles. With a library of cool GIFs, frames, stickers, masks and drawing tools, Facebook lets kids elaborately decorate content and express their personalities. But as the early adopters clamber aboard this next wave of social media, an overwhelming number of health experts are urging parents to think twice.

What are the experts saying?

According to Facebook, Messenger Kids is the product we didn’t know we needed – ‘A great way to connect with our kids’, to stay in touch. But not everyone is convinced that Facebook has our best interests at heart. In an open letter from more than 100 child development experts, health advocacy groups and educators, a great deal of ‘experts’ are calling Mark Zuckerberg’s new gizmo ‘irresponsible’[2]. So as parents, what do we make of all this? Is this just another over-reaction to harmless social media, or do all these experts actually know something that we don’t? In a word, yes. Yes, they do.

As Facebook unleash another fab new gimmick to an even younger audience of kids, the journal of Clinical Psychological Science publishes its brand new research concluding that adolescents with increased time on social media report an increase in depressive symptoms and suicide related outcomes[3].

If your kids have smartphones (like mine), this research will not surprise you. It’s virtually impossible to have missed the steady decline of our youth mental health statistics, but this is the first wave of science that clearly states the negative social and emotional impact of social media on young brains. Finally, the hard hitting evidence is here. Our love affair with social media is in fact having a major impact on the mental and emotional health of our young people[4].

So how on earth do we help our kids strike the right balance between tech and life?

For this there is no simple answer. We all know that just to kiss social media goodbye would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But, at the risk of oversimplifying things, there are two words that can give us some clues as we navigate this tension – love and limits.


Love looks like cutting a track back to our kids’ hearts and reminding them that we are their number one fan. Our kids need to know that we care about their well-being, we want the best for them and we are prepared to be unpopular to keep them safe. Love involves a conversation about technology, similar to the one we had about smoking when we learned that smoking was really bad for our health.

Love involves open and honest conversations with our kids where we can lay out the facts to convey the pitfalls of social media-overload without our children feeling like we have personally got it in for them. Love listens more than it lectures, and it tunes in big time to the feelings our kids experience in a sometimes brutal online world. Loves starts conversations with phrases like, “Tell me about…”, “What do you think of…”, “Help me understand a bit more about…” and, “Hey, can I share something with you because I care about you?”

Setting limits

How you manage the ‘limits’ part of the relationship with your child is entirely your call. One Auckland school cites a study saying screen time exposure for teens should ideally be between one and five hours a week, combined with lots of time for mixing with other people through sport and hobbies. For most working parents this feels aspirational and even totally unrealistic. But before we are too quick to dismiss it, it would be wise to at least make this the basis of a conversation with our kids about ‘how much is too much of a good thing?’ When kids know the science, and the risks, they might have some very interesting insights. Setting limits with our kids starts with conversations like, “Let’s agree on some ways to use technology to your advantage…”, “How can we work out a way to balance online and offline time…” or, “Let’s try and find a realistic limit to time spent online.”

Like me, if you are feeling a little overwhelmed by the challenges of parenting well in generation smartphone, take this as an opportunity to consider the research and your child’s relationship with tech, and attempt to find a way forward that’s going to work for both of you. And take heart, you are not alone. Providing you stay present and keep the lines of communication open, your child has what they need to thrive.

For more information and advice on setting limits and parental controls, check out Digi-parenting
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