Ask the Mediatrician®

Mediatrician® Michael Rich, MD, MPH, founded the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Children's Hospital Boston to understand and respond to the effects of media on the physical, mental, and social health of children through research, translation, and education. He is sharing CMCH resources with Comcast customers to help keep kids healthy and safe in the Media Age.

Dr. Rich is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Associate Professor of Society, Human Development and Health at Harvard School of Public Health.

I tried to cancel my daughter's social media account, but she created another one - what do I do?

You're right - cancelling your daughter's account is unlikely to stop her from being on social media. In fact, it will probably just make it into the "forbidden fruit" and encourage her to find sneaky ways to go on. And that will make it hard for her to ask you for help when she needs it. Also, there are many positive things that young people can get from social media environments, like connection with people they care about who are far away and with others who share their interests.

So what can you do if you don't want her on social media anyway? First, be clear about why you feel that way. Is she younger than 13 and you don't want her to be targeted by marketing? Are you worried that she will share personal information, or that she will be at risk for bullying? Knowing exactly what your concerns are will give you a chance to think about more effective options for setting guidelines when she does have an account:

  • If you're worried about bullying or other unhealthy interactions, make sure that she "friends" you so you can see everything she posts. (I encourage you to do this even if you're not concerned about bullying... research shows that being connected on social media can strengthen parent-child relationships.)
  • If you're worried about reputation, share "The Grandma Rule", which is not to put anything online that they don't want their grandmother to see. Social media is not a private space. Her grandmother - and many other grandmothers - can see it.

Once you know exactly what your concerns are, sit down and talk with her about social media. Ask her what excites her about it, and if there's anything that worries her. Really listen and understand. Then let her know what worries you. Ask her to help you think of options (like those listed above) that allow her to use social media and allow you to be part of her online life and help her interact safely. Tell her, "I want you to use these tools effectively and safely, just as I will want you to drive a car effectively and safely."

Having this type of conversation will pull you out of the policing role and help you get you both on the same side. Then you can support and guide in her process of growing up in the digital world, just as you do in real life.

What's an appropriate amount of social media time per day for young people?

Social media tools can be tremendously useful and connecting when used in mindful ways. More and more often, they are being used for group projects in school, or for creating social movements, or for crowdsourcing answers to common problems. They can be used to link up with others who share a young person's interests when there aren't many in the immediate community, or to stay connected with loved ones far away.

That said, it's easy to start using social media all the time - and it can quickly get in the way of other things in young people's lives. Instead of creating time limits (which can encourage young people to "fill their quota" first - and then argue for more time), focus on making sure there's time for all of the other important things that kids need to do every day, like sleeping enough, eating family meals, going to school, doing homework, and getting exercise. If social media is getting in way of those things, look for ways of helping young people use it less.

For example, if using a smartphone to post on social media sites (or, more likely, to text) is getting in the way of sleep, start charging all of the family's mobile phones in your room overnight. That way, there won't be messages coming in all night and disturbing their sleep (which other screens can do as well).

Also pay attention to whether social media is supporting or interfering with face-to-face connection with other people (for example, if young people are updating social media accounts instead of talking to a friend who's in the same room). Interacting in person is very important to young people's development, and it particularly supports them in learning how to build connections with people and develop language skills.

One way to increase connection when it's so easy to keep connection superficial is to encourage young people to "upgrade" each interaction by one: That is, when they're about to message someone on social media, they can upgrade to a text. If they're thinking of texting, upgrade to a phone call; if they're thinking of calling, upgrade to a visit. By upgrading in this way, they will also be upgrading the connection and intimacy in the relationship - and using media mindfully in this way can help support that.

My son is addicted to a game called MineCraft - what do I do?

More and more families are facing the challenge of media addiction, or problematic media use. Regardless of whether your child is clinically addicted (in the U.S., there is no official diagnosis for media addiction, although there is one in many countries in Asia), though, you may need to intervene if:

1. the game displaces important things like sleep, homework, family time, and socializing with friends

2. when he is not using the game for a period of time, he becomes irritable and just want to get back to playing it

If you're noticing these sorts of issues, sit down with your son at a time when he's not playing. Let him know what you're observing and that you think he is having real trouble stopping playing this game. He may agree and ask for help, or (more likely) he may deny that there's a problem.

If he says there's no problem, ask him to show you. Have him try stopping all game play for a period of time, and see whether he is able to manage without it (which may be very difficult to do). If he is, then work with him to build a daily schedule that prioritizes time for the other important things - like family meals, homework, sleep, and time with friends. I would recommend against imposing time limitations; he is likely what to use up his game time before doing anything else and lead to a conflict over how much he can extend that time. Instead, help him build his 24 hour day from the ground up, with the game coming in after all of his other needs are met.

If he's truly unable to manage his time with Minecraft, he may need to stop cold turkey, either for a period of cooling off or permanently. Different people have different levels of addictive behaviors, and only through experience will you know if your child is able re-adjust and manage his Minecraft time effectively. You may also need additional resources to help you handle this situation, so seek out the guidance of a professional therapist, psychologist, or social worker.

Can we watch what our kids do online?

Yes, you can - and you should! Many parents feel like their kids know much more about technology than they do, so they give kids free rein online. But even when kids are better at operating the technology, that doesn't mean they know how to interact with others in effective, safe, and positive ways.

When parents are present in kids' online lives, they can help teach kids to think before they act. Just knowing you can see what they do may make them think twice before posting that embarrassing picture, for example. Also, when you see something happening online that concerns you, you can ask about it (e.g., "I saw that Jimmy made a not so nice comment on Jack's post - what do you think about that? I wonder whether there's something you could post to make that a more positive conversation."). This kind of coaching can help them learn to use the Internet in ways that support their relationships.

Just as you would guide them in learning safe ways to use a power tool or car, you need to guide them in the human relationship component of using interactive media. To do that, link up with your kids on whatever social media sites they use and pay attention to what they and their friends post. Ask them to show you what sites they like to post on (if any) and how they use them. Let them know that what happens online can be seen by anyone, and that you are paying attention because you want to be available to help when they need it.

What do you recommend as overall screen time per day?

Children need many kinds of experiences in a day. Instead of focusing on how much time kids spend using screens, focus on what each individual child needs for optimal learning and development.

For example, we know that children are healthiest in mind and body when they eat at least one meal each day with their family (and all screens off), get physical activity (outdoors as often as possible), spend time with friends, have adequate time and focus for homework, and get enough sleep. I recommend prioritizing those activities and then seeing what time is left over for screen entertainment or other activities.

Why take this approach instead of setting time limits? Because being told they can only use screens for a certain amount of time can tempt kids to use that time first - and then beg to prolong that time because they are halfway through a video game, TV program, or text exchange. That's why I suggest approaching this issue from the other direction: First, lay out your child's 24-hour day with all the essentials in it, and then see what time is left. Doing this with children can help them learn to prioritize and manage their time, an important skill that will serve them well into the future.

Remember that screens are tools. They do some things really well and other things less well. Use them for what they're best for, and when they are interfering - as TV can when kids are watching it while doing homework - turn them off.