If your family is like mine, your social media use has probably exploded during the pandemic. Without the ability to see family and friends in-person, social media has provided a respite of connection during a time in our lives when public health officials are advising us to limit in-person gatherings. While the benefits are many – the pictures that my daughter sends of our “grand-dog” are absolutely precious – we also know that misuse of social media can have  devastating effects on friendships, attention to work (school or otherwise), self-esteem, and more. So, what now? When is social media use appropriate? What boundaries should we set?

The key is balance. In an article for the Military Health System about maintaining positive social media interactions, the author explores how social media helps us connect with far-flung friends, provides a creative outlet for many, and can help nurture deeper relationships offline. On the flip side, social media can encourage unhealthy social status comparisons, lead to aggressive posting and online bullying, and lower feelings of well being. The Department of the Air Force’s chief of chaplains, Maj. Gen. Steve Schaick, sums it up well. He compares social media to plastic plants. “From a distance, they look good. And of course, they don’t need to be watered so there’s nothing to maintain.” But, says Schaick, “the rewards of caring for live plants are exponentially more satisfying.”

The research isn’t yet clear regarding how much social media use is the right amount, and it probably varies by person; however, our job as parents and role models is to dig deeper into these questions. The challenge is that your family is different from mine, age matters, and no 13 individual year-old has the same makeup as another. As a result, we need broad guidelines that can account for differences in each child.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends families develop a media use plan and also published recommendations for families to consider as they think about their plan. They include:

  • For children younger than 18 months: Avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years: Limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older: Place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health. 
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

Common Sense Media recommends social media rules for different age groups. Check out the basic rules for middle schoolers and the rules for tweens and teens. They also publish a guide for new parents that helps us understand what we should and shouldn’t post about our own growing families.

Ultimately, each of us will need to wrestle with these questions and more as we think about the benefits and risks of our children’s social media use. Regardless of outcome, I hope you’ll keep Maj. Gen. Steve Schaick’s advice in mind. Being in the presence of a live, caring person far outweighs the relationships we only have online.