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I have two daughters, ages 2 and 5. Like any reasonable person in the world, I want Saturday mornings to be a sacred time of, “be quiet and let me sleep past 7:30 am!” Right? So, like most good parents, when my 5-year-old walks into our room at 6:45 am we hand her the iPad and let her watch a Disney Junior show.

In the moment, this feels great. She sits at the foot of our bed and we roll over and go back to sleep. It’s amazing. Fast forward 45 minutes to when we say, “Hey, it’s time to turn off the iPad and go downstairs for breakfast.”

—Cue colossal meltdown—

Last Saturday was the worst. It was my birthday weekend and I was planning on making chocolate chip pancakes for us and the girls. Instead, we spent an hour trying to get our 5yr old to calm down. She sat at the top of the stairs screaming and yelling and crying. She called us names and made threats. My favorite was, “If you don’t let me watch another show I’m never coming down these stairs again!” Knock yourself out kid, right?

We scrapped the pancake plan. No sense in rewarding that kind of behavior.

 

Child screen time and daily behavior

We’ve put together a pretty accurate trend of how screen time impacts the mood and behavior of our kids. If she gets 25 minutes or less of screen time on a regular television she seems to be able to handle turning it off. If we give her more than that amount of time on an iPad she turns into a monster.

Any other parents have similar experiences?

I’m not a parenting expert. I’m just a Dad trying not to mess his kids up for the rest of their lives. If I’m lucky, maybe they’ll be good people and make a positive impact on their community someday. I’m not trying to raise the first female President. Just trying to raise girls that are kind and caring to the people around them.

That little bit of personal analysis only shows how general screen time impacts my kids. What about social media use at early ages?

Facebook has released a Messenger app targeted specifically at children called “Messenger Kids.”

 

Children and social media use

Since 2009, I have managed the social media presence of several businesses, churches, and ministries. As a youth pastor, I watched Facebook go from a teen and young adult platform to a “That’s just for moms” platform. I am active on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

I have a good handle on social media and how it impacts both teens and adults. It’s not pretty. I don’t need to tell you that. You see the things posted and shared on social media. While there is a lot of great content, there are also some awful things shared. We’re now even seeing that foreign actors are infiltrating our social media to push propaganda to influence our thoughts and actions.

There is no part of me that can get on board with a child-focused social media app. It sounds good when you first read about it. It’s ad-free and parent controlled. Seems like a “safe” place for children to text and engage with each other and family.

If you take a minute to think about it you can see where the business angle comes into play. Children, as soon as they’re old enough to read and write, are now able to become invested in a minimized version social media. They will begin building the addiction (I believe in social media addiction…there’s a good chance I have it!) years earlier in life. That only serves to build Facebook’s market base in the years to come.

Do we want our children becoming addicted to social media as 7 and 8-year-olds? Seriously, my 5-year-old can’t handle 30 minutes of iPad time without losing her mind. What kind of impact will child-focused social media have on her and others her age?

 

Parental responsibility

The argument to this is that we live in a free society. Facebook can create whatever kind of product they want. It is up to us as parents to decide whether to allow our children to take part. I’m all for a free market. As parents, we need to be aware of the impact these things have on our children and regulate it for them.

Maybe I’m old school. I don’t intend to let my children have a phone until I feel its necessary to keep them safe. Even then, I intend to restrict what apps they have access to and will watch their phones and texts until it’s just not acceptable anymore. (Say age 35? Is that ok?). Those decisions will be more based on keeping my kids safe than their social lives.

I was a youth pastor from 2010-2015. Before that, I helped with youth ministry from 2004 – 2009. In that time I saw first hand how technology has affected our teenagers with increasing severity over the last 15 years. Almost every teen I’ve known in that time compared their worst days to the best days of their peers and Instagram stars. I’ve had students caught up in sexting as middle schoolers probably because of how socially acceptable that kind of behavior is portrayed through social media. There are so many traps teens can fall into through their attachment and addiction to social media. Do we really want our younger children to be conditioned to that attachment?

 

Teaching authenticity and self-regulation

It is up to us as parents, grandparents, youth leaders and teachers to teach our children how to live and to be their authentic self online. We can’t prevent companies from targeting our kids at younger and younger ages. We can help our children learn to respect themselves and be kind and caring to those around them. Then, we can help them continue that behavior online.

I think we have to teach foundational character traits apart from online media first. Once our kids show that they can display the right attitudes and behaviors in their life toward others, as well as show self-control, then maybe we allow them to explore social media in a controlled environment like Messenger Kids.

I’m not sure that’s possible for a 7 or 8-year-old child. Messenger Kids sounds like a reasonable solution for tweens (10-12-year-olds). They’re old enough to have an understanding of who they are and what’s expected of them. They know how to treat the people around them even if they don’t always show it. Tweens are old enough to understand what kind of interaction with a stranger is appropriate. That’s not to say they always make the right decisions. It does mean they have the foundation necessary to be able to handle controlled exposure to social media.

On top of making sure our kids have the right foundations to be able to handle social media is teaching them how to self-regulate. Give them boundaries and parameters to live within on social media. Set times of day, locations of your home, and lengths of time they’re allowed to use social media. Monitor everything they read and post. Have password control over all their accounts.

Hopefully, if we provide structure and guidance as our kids move through the tween and younger teen years they will have a handle on how to engage social media positively and safely as older teens and young adults.

I’m no expert. I do have some experience having led tweens and teens for several years as social media took off in our culture. These are just some things I’ve been thinking about as I watch my own young children explore and at times struggle with technology.

 

Are you a parent?

What is your social media plan for your kids? What do you think of Facebook’s Messenger Kids? Anyone use it?

Let me know in the comments, on Twitter or Facebook. To read my other posts on parenting click here.

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