Kids and social media: Guidance for parents

Michael Craig Miller, M.D.

Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publishing

As many who were children before the era of cell phones will remember, contacting a friend by phone often involved mastering at least the following script: “Hi, Mrs. Doe. Is Johnny home?” Not so today, in the world of cell phones, texting, email, Facebook, and Twitter.

If you are a parent and don’t use or understand the new technologies, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has just issued a guideline saying that you probably should. More than half of teens connect to a social media site at least daily. Three-quarters have cell phones that they can use for social networking as well as texting. In a guideline published in March, the AAP makes the important (if obvious) point that today’s children are growing up on the Internet. Since children and adolescents now spend a great deal of time there, parents have good reasons to know what the place is like.

The Internet is both private (parents are often excluded) and immeasurably public. It’s the second half of this pair that has pediatricians and parents worried. The Internet is a new place for children to become vulnerable. They can be bullied or humiliated by peers. They may release private information and regret it later. Predators can exploit them. There are opportunities to become involved in sexual situations or relationships that are emotionally hurtful or dangerous.

But the AAP authors also underscore the value these social media tools have for kids. They socialize, learn, create, and grow. They can find social support from peers with common interests. They can get involved in their communities and strengthen their communication skills. Moreover, children can explore topics they might be too embarrassed to ask about in person—about sex, health, or any of the common and uncommon sources of childhood unhappiness.

The AAP authors suggest that pediatricians encourage parents to talk with their children about the following core issues: bullying, popularity, status, depression, social anxiety, risk-taking, and sexual development. This is an excellent list, because it is anchored in what we know about child and adolescent development rather than any perceived special influences of the social network.

Another good suggestion is that parents narrow the “participation gap.” Just as parents inform themselves about the schools their children attend, the activities they take part in, or the parties they go to, it makes sense for them to know about their children’s online communities and activities. The AAP urges parents to talk with their children rather than spy on them. Children are, after all, entitled to (and benefit from) a zone of privacy so they can develop a sense of autonomy and independence.

The guideline includes one recommendation that appears impractical or unrealistic—the “need for a family online-use plan” and “regular family meetings.” There is no evidence that the privileges and limits of Internet use are substantially different from, for example, rules around bedtime, doing homework, or watching TV. The authors appropriately advise against punitive responses, emphasizing instead teaching or modeling healthy behavior and good citizenship. These are values that are relevant to much of parenting.

We don’t (and perhaps never will) have evidence to determine whether children are more or less at risk in the digital age. My impression is that in many communities, today’s parents know a lot more about their children’s daily lives than did parents of earlier generations. The AAP has avoided the trap of inventing a special set of rules, developing instead a set of recommendations that fits into mainstream parenting.

And a word on children who refuse to “friend” you on Facebook: Adolescents did not begin keeping things from their parents only when the Internet was invented. Children and adolescents have always had plenty of ways to get into trouble. (I know. I was there.) This guideline succeeds because it builds upon well-understood parenting principles. It helps pediatricians give practical advice to parents who want to extend analog parenting into the digital world.


  1. Bethany Cousins

    Great article!

    My children are computer addicts, but thank goodness they lean more toward the games than the social media. Although I have to admit that both of my older children have Facebook accounts, they rarely use them, as our house rule strictly states, “No chatting on the Internet.” We recently published Peace of Mind: Internet Safety for Your Kids to provide some ideas for parents and feel strongly that we all need to keep a close eye on our children when it comes to the Internet!

  2. Heather Smith

    Good article, social media use could benefit the average teenage kids by interacting with same age group and with different backgrounds and learning to think by themselves what is good for them.

  3. Charlie

    Social media is just another evolutionary phase, for many children now this is as much a part of their social development as interacting with other kids face to face. Parental control is of course necessary along with appropriate usage guidance but this cannot be restricted completely. We exist and interact in a digital age and social media is now as (if not more) prevalent than the telephone.
    Goood article. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Michelle DeMarco

    I have the logins to my children’s accounts so I can go in and check them at any time. I also have their computers in a general area facing out so I can see what they are doing on their screens. This has really helped me keep tabs on them and encourages them to be transparent.

    I am also suspicious enough to go and check their friend’s accounts to see if they have created a new facebook account separate from the one I “know” about. That is how I discovered my son had a second account and then we had a chat about that and how it is important for me to see what is going on in his social life.

    Great article and a tough decision either way. Overall, I have found that light social networking has been fun for the kids.

  5. Anonymous

    Personally, I think kids should be banned from any social media devices and should be out playing and actually conversing with their peers.

  6. Digital Media Mam

    This is such a difficult subject. On one hand kids have to participate in social media just to stay in current social flows. On the other hand, the internet has made children much easier targets for predators. A parent may not want to intrude on their child’s privacy, but how does one really monitor what a kid is doing online? Even if you could access the child’s Facebook or MySpace page, what about texts and Tweets? I’m curious to know what practices parents have come up with that work.
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  7. Lee Mainprize

    My kids are coming are not teens as yet, I do worry about when they do the exposure to porn, voilence and other negative influences. A strong up bringing underpinned with values and morals will help them navigate their way, one thing for sure you can’t hide or ban then from it.


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  8. Tom Ewer

    Different mediums come and go, but the dangers remain constant.

  9. Rebecca Henry

    I believe more and more people should read this post. I will share on my Facebook, Twitter and Publicity blog in Los Angeles. Thx

  10. Debby Major

    Great Article Michael. Looking at the average teen who engages in social media, I am quick to agree they often manage to work smart, not hard. A example we all should take note from.

  11. Rob

    Businesses could benefit greatly from the average teenage kids social media abilities

  12. Rob

    Great article Michael!

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