When social distancing collides with social media

Linda Charmaraman

Across the country, schools are closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak, important social milestones like tournaments, proms, and graduations have been cancelled, and teens and tweens are stuck at home.

Hopefully they’re doing some online learning, video conferencing a few activities, and getting some fresh air outside. But it’s likely that they’re spending a lot of time on social media--for example, creating viral TikTok videos--even more than usual. 

As a researcher who studies youth, media and wellbeing, I’ve been asked by a number of parent friends if they should be concerned (on top of all their other concerns right now!). They want their kids to stay in touch with peers they can no longer see in person, while minimizing digital addiction and the added anxiety that can come with spending a lot of time on social media, especially right now. Here are some things I’ve been telling them to keep in mind: 

Screen time and healthy habits

When our kids were at school for six hours each day, and at sports practice or play rehearsal for several hours after that, the time they could spend on their phones was at least somewhat limited. Without that structure, it may seem as though they’re staring at their phones and tablets all day long.

Many parents are more concerned than before about the health effects of screen time. Here’s what we know: Playing video games can have cognitive benefits; however, the use of violent screen media (e.g., videos, games) is strongly associated with impulsive and aggressive behavior which may be difficult for families to manage when routines and natural limits are thrown off.

Children are exposed to a multitude of advertisements and marketing campaigns as they watch YouTube and scroll through their social media. This exposure is linked to unhealthy food consumption, increased materialism, increased parent-child conflict, and negative body image in girls. In fact, heavy screen use is strongly linked with obesity and depression, so parents might want to watch the unhealthy snack intake while their teens are also reducing their physical activity.

Effects on mood - both yours and theirs

If you’ve noticed that you feel despondent after reading COVID-19 horror stories on Facebook, it’s likely your teen or tween has also noticed. Parents should be mindful first and foremost of how much they themselves are using technology and how it’s affecting their mood in front of their kids.

This can be a good opportunity for a conversation with teens and tweens about how social media makes them feel, too.

My research team has hosted social media workshops for middle school students, and we’ve found that they are very open to being educated about its risks and benefits, including its effects on their mental health. Help your kids to recognize when being on social media makes them feel anxious; that might be a good time to put down the phone and pick up a book or go outside.

One unexpected benefit during this self-isolation time is that since everyone is in the same boat, feelings of missing out (FoMO) on all the fun others are having are reduced, and people can use the online space to commiserate on their lack of physical socializing.

Leaning on community

Since social media is already interwoven into the fabric of teens’ and tweens’ lives, being only in touch with their friends online may not feel that concerning--at least at first. But they might be surprised by how much getting together in a physical space fulfills social and emotional needs that online communication doesn’t.

Physical distancing can lead to unexpected loneliness, which has its own ill effects. Social media can help teens and tweens maintain ties to their friends at a time when getting together in person isn’t possible. Over half of the middle schoolers in my team’s study reported giving and receiving social and emotional support online, especially about issues related to school, friends, relationships, family, and worries. There are plenty of worries to go around these days, so encourage your kids to lean on their online community--and don’t forget to do the same yourself.

Managing fake news

There are a lot of rumors about COVID-19 flying around online, and chances are your kids have been exposed to some of them. Remind them that they shouldn’t believe everything that gets shared online, and help them determine which sources can be relied upon for fact-checking.

It’s particularly important to dispel misinformation that fuels xenophobia and racism, such as COVID-19 being referred to as “the Chinese virus.” Encourage them to interject if one of their friends uses this term or if they see it being used to bully Asian Americans online.

Restrictions, monitoring and communication

If you previously had rules in place around your teen’s or tween’s social media use, now might be a good time to revisit those rules--either to make them more flexible or more stringent, depending on your child’s individual personality and needs.

There is evidence that parental monitoring of online and mobile content (including checking who your child follows on Instagram and Snapchat) is associated with lower problematic internet behaviors, such as internet addiction and being a perpetrator of cyberbullying.

Parental monitoring of screen content and frequency of use can come in different forms: curfews before bed, secretive tracking, open dialogues about phone use, etc. Depending on your kids’ self-regulation skills and their ages, one or more of these forms of monitoring might be useful. And what works for your family may change as the COVID-19 situation evolves.

Finally, remember that all of our lives--ours and our kids’--have changed drastically in the span of only a few months. It’s a lot for anyone to deal with, and there will be days when our teens and tweens spend hours upon hours online. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over it. All we can do is use what we know about social media to guide them toward a healthier relationship with it over time.

And if along the way we can have a good laugh together about a TikTok handwashing video, even better.

Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women and project director of the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab. She is co-principal investigator of a middle school social media pilot study funded by Children and Screens: Institute Digital Media & Child Development. She also conducts research funded by a 3-year National Institutes of Health grant to follow middle school students and their parents longitudinally in order to determine longer-term health and wellbeing effects due to early smartphone use, social media use, and gaming.