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Like many other parents, I struggled when my children asked for their first cellphone a decade ago. I felt like a pioneer exploring new territory. Technology was evolving quickly, and the old rules were no longer relevant. As computers became smartphones that could fit in back pockets, gone were the days when parents could simply keep the home desktop in the kitchen where everyone could see what was being explored.

In the years since, as a psychologist, I’ve witnessed the impact that smartphone use and in particular social media apps have on young people’s mental health and social and emotional development. Tween patients have sat in my office, filled with embarrassment, while their parents presented me with demeaning social media posts peers had used to bully them.

To reduce bullying, improve mental health and increase focus and classroom engagement, several countries, such as China, France and the Netherlands, have limited or forbidden cellphone use in schools, while some politicians in the U.K. are considering banning their sale to people under the age of 16. Here in Canada, school boards including some of those in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia have or are looking at similar restrictions.

While some advocate for rigid, one-size-fits-all policies, many educators and government officials recognize the need for flexibility. Teachers prefer the autonomy to set classroom rules that align with their teaching methods and students’ needs, and in some cases cellphone bans have led to unintended consequences such as heightened anxiety and enforcement challenges.

At the same time, several school districts in the United States and four Ontario school boards have launched lawsuits against the tech companies that run social-media platforms Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, accusing them of creating products that monopolize students’ attention, disrupt their learning and negatively affect their well-being and behaviour.

Locked boxes, rotary phones and app controls: Canadian parents try anything to curb kids’ phone use

None of these allegations have been proven in court, but Facebook’s internal research has revealed that Instagram exacerbates body image issues, especially in teenage girls, affecting one in three. More than 40 per cent of users feel unattractive and attribute it to the app. Research conducted in 2017 by the Royal Society for Public Health in the U.K. echoed these concerns, implicating social media, particularly Instagram, in worsening youth mental health.

While screen time is recognized for its potential to enhance educational outcomes, it is also associated with reduced executive functioning and academic performance when used excessively, as well as obesity, sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety and challenges in emotional understanding and social interactions.

For me, safety dictated my decision around providing devices to my children. When they began to explore their city on their own, I wanted to be able to locate them and for them to call me if needed. I found enabling the iPhone’s “Find My” feature invaluable for this purpose.

Parents should have age-appropriate conversations about social media use alongside managing screen time. For upper elementary schoolchildren, discussions should focus on basic online etiquette and safety. Middle school conversations can delve deeper into cyberbullying and digital footprint management. High school discussions should encompass responsible social-media use, including privacy settings, critical thinking about online content, and navigating complex online situations.

Parents may find it challenging to limit their children’s screen time if they struggle to regulate their own usage. Setting a positive example through role modelling is crucial. The amount of screen time parents and children engage in is closely linked. Research conducted at the University of Bristol in 2010 suggests that if parents watch television for more than four hours daily, their children are significantly more likely to do the same.

I suggest families develop personalized agreements on device and social-media usage with children, tailored to their ages and needs. Involving children in creating them encourages discussions on safety, online conduct, mental well-being and empathy. Children are more likely to adhere to these guidelines when they feel involved.

Parents should emphasize the importance of obtaining consent before sharing photos and discourage negative comments or gossip. Children should be advised to report any concerning online interactions promptly and protect their login details. I cannot overstate the value of fostering integrity by teaching children never to engage with content intended to harm or embarrass others, regardless of anonymity.

I have found it helpful to summarize these guidelines with the acronym “THINK.” THINK before you post emphasizes five key considerations: True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary and Kind. Before sharing content, users are encouraged to evaluate whether it aligns with these principles. This involves ensuring information is accurate (True), contributes positively (Helpful), motivates others (Inspiring), adds value to conversations (Necessary) and promotes kindness and empathy (Kind).

By following these guidelines, parents can instill in their children the values of good online citizenship, thereby nurturing a more positive and constructive digital landscape that encourages meaningful interactions and respectful discourse.

Dr. Jillian Roberts is a research Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Victoria. She is also practicing Registered Psychologist in B.C. and Alberta. She specializes in child psychology, known for her expertise in navigating the complexities of children’s emotional and mental well-being.

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