Children and social media: 5 tips to prevent addiction

Would you like your children to play outside more often instead of sitting inside glued to a screen? You’re not the only one! It is a thorn in the flesh of many parents. When you’re on your own, it’s perhaps even harder to be consistent than when you have a partner who supports you in sending them outside to play more often… so how do you prevent your kids from getting addicted to social media?

Warm feeling

You know that warm feeling you get when you see a lot of likes from a Facebook or Instagram post? That’s your brain’s reward system lighting up like fireflies on a dark summer evening.
It is the same system that is activated in the brains of drug addicts. All addictions work on the variable reward system. A variable reward system is a system where someone sometimes gets a reward – like that warm feeling – when they do something, but not all the time, and does not know when that good feeling will return.

Excessive social media use

Excessive use of social media is much more problematic in children because their developing brains are more flexible. By the time they start to become adults, their reward system becomes more activated and develops more rapidly. When children are exposed to social media, they can overstimulate their reward centre and increase their responsiveness. This causes addiction. In a way, it is like wine: it is OK to use a little, but when it becomes too much, it creates problems. When we use technology, we need to set limits on its use.

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5 tips to prevent addiction to social media

  1. Talk about it – Just as parents talk to their children about safe sex and avoiding drugs, they should discuss social media use. Sharing why this behaviour is problematic can lead to many changes, explaining that most people can respond to information if they are motivated enough.
  2. Set boundaries – It is wise for parents to create goals and rules for media use that are in line with their family’s values.
  3. Set a good example – If parents check their phones at the dinner table, their children tend to do the same. You teach your children what is appropriate and what is not appropriate by modelling the behaviour, and it’s not just about reducing excessive use – it also teaches them about specific behaviours such as cyberbullying, sexting or sharing personal photos.
  4. Get a balance – There is some merit to social media. It can help many people feel more connected, and there is value in some video games, such as math games. One of the biggest benefits of video games is improved hand-eye coordination, but you only have to play one hour a week. People need to take responsibility and decide what is good for them. For example, 30 hours of video games per week for students during exams can be detrimental.
  5. Turn off notifications – Constant pings activate the reward system in the brain. It’s hard for people to resist that, even if they’re in the middle of something important. Remove social media apps from the phone and only check it on a desktop or laptop.

Children become addicted to social media, but why is that?

Children are glued to their smartphones. This is evident from the latest survey by Common Sense Media. The total screen time of young people increased by 17 per cent between 2019 and 2021. Never before has this number been so high, but why is this?

The fact that children are active on social media is not necessarily a bad thing. Thanks to social media, the little ones learn how to connect with friends, count likes and play games skillfully. However, too much screen time is not healthy for anyone, including children. There are various causes for this problem.

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Children watch unhealthy amounts of screen time

The survey showed that children’s screen time increased by 17 per cent between 2019 and 2021. For kids aged 8 to 12, screen time is 5 hours and 33 minutes. Teenagers aged 13 and above have an average screen time of 8 hours and 39 minutes (!)

According to parenting experts, these extreme numbers have several causes. For one thing, children nowadays have access to digital devices anywhere and anytime. They also get this access from their parents. During the pandemic (20/21), parents often gave their children a screen so that they had something to do. In this way, mum and dad could work at home undisturbed.

The pressure of social media also plays a major role. Children do not want to be left behind and therefore want to be up to date on everything. They feel a kind of satisfaction when they are up to date again. This can be very addictive, both for children and adults.

What can you do as a parent?

Parents who are concerned should first consider whether their offspring is old enough to have access to screens at all. Don’t just look at ‘the number’, but also at the child’s behaviour. The fact that a child has reached a certain age does not mean it is ready for social media.

Moreover, communication is the key to success. Children need to become aware of the possible dangers of the internet. Also, try to have a regular media detox. Switch off all digital devices at least one day a week and do something fun with your children. If children regularly do other things, they will learn how to enjoy themselves without screens.

Finally, set time limits for how long your little one can use a screen. For example, no more than two hours during the week and no more than an hour at the weekend. This will encourage children to play outside or to do other things than watch videos on YouTube.

Are social media platforms to blame?

Several US states, such as California and Minnesota, are working on laws to hold companies accountable for the effects their platforms have on the mental health of young people. In Minnesota, the state commission has approved a law that makes it more difficult to expose children to algorithms.

The California law would allow parents to sue companies that feed the social media addiction of young people. This makes social media channels directly responsible for high screen time. Violators can expect a fine of 25 thousand dollars per child. Both laws are not yet active, but have many supporters.

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