There's reason to keep your eye on how much time you and your kids are on electronics, but "it's a knee-jerk reaction to assume that the time kids spend on their phone is distracting from important things," says Candice Odgers, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine. Through the years, parents have had the same concern about comic books, radio, television, and video games. "But when we look at the evidence, we don't see extreme negative effects of that time usage," she says.
In fact, research shows there are upsides to digital technology, especially when you use it wisely. Check out some of the ways tech can be good for kids and parents alike.
The internet gives kids unprecedented access to do a deep dive into their interests, whether that's sports, pop culture, music, or history. "Young people connecting with others who share their interests and engaging in projects together online is one of the most powerful contexts for learning," says Mizuko Ito, Ph.D., a cultural anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine. She points to a UCI study of teenagers in an online fan community for the band One Direction. "They end up learning how to curate information, write, and cultivate an audience," Ito says. Those are all skills that will transfer to the classroom or office.
The thought and effort kids put into their social media accounts also exercise several skills, including writing and learning how to present themselves. For example, kids can focus their accounts on a particular interest, like baseball or Broadway musicals, and have running commentary and insights, which helps them find their voice.
But keep an eye on what they post and give guidance. Good rules: Think before you post. Never post something you wouldn't say in person, and keep all personal info (address, phone number) private.
Apps allow kids to practice math, reading, and language skills at their own pace.
Social media helps kids keep in touch with grandparents and cousins who live across the country. It also gives parents a window into kids' lives. "Following kids' social accounts can be a good way to see what's going on in their lives that they might not be talking about," says Christine Elgersma, senior editor of parent education at Common Sense Media. Parents should spot check kids' social media accounts and keep an open dialogue. And you can connect over shared interests with apps such as these:
Fun Fact: 83 percent of parents are friends with their teens on Facebook.
“If you don’t want your kids checking their phone during conversations or other activities, then you can’t do it either,” Elgersma says. “It’s also helpful to narrate what you’re doing on your phone in front of them so it’s not this mysterious interrupter of time.” And aim for device-free meals. “If your child sees you checking your phone at the table, she will do it, too.”
"The internet and social media have been a useful tool for youth to mobilize and get the word out about issues that matter to them," says Ellen Middaugh, Ph.D., assistant professor of child and adolescent development at San José State University. Whether teens are raising money and supplies to help hurricane victims and homeless youth or registering people to vote, the benefits go beyond helping others. "Civic engagement gives youth a chance to feel like their voice matters, reinforces a sense of identity and purpose, and creates connections they can draw on in the future," Middaugh says. Help guide kids by checking out youth-focused sites like DoSomething.org, which gives them a digital platform to find causes they're passionate about and take action.
Civic engagement correlates with academic achievement.
There's an idea that social media is messing with our ability to communicate face-to-face and making relationships shallow. But research hasn't shown that. A review of 36 studies from 2002 to 2017 found that although digital communication may make conflicts worse, it gives teens more opportunities to bond by revealing their personalities and showing support. The researchers concluded that virtual interactions may have the same benefits as in-person ones. And a 2016 study found that using social media increased teens' empathy for friends.
There's also a big overlap between online and offline lives. Teens' friend groups tend to be the same. "Kids with good relationships go on to develop strong social networks online, then their relationships offline also look stronger," Odgers says. On the flip side, social media can be a great tool for isolated kids. (Of course kids should ask you before befriending or chatting with anyone online.) "Back in the day, you were pretty limited to your neighborhood and school," Elgersma says. "If you didn't fit in at either, you were kind of out of luck. But now you can connect to people online who have similar interests and passions."
What’s in kids’ media diets is more important than how much they’re consuming, experts say. “There’s so much great content that can help kids learn and grow. But so often we just focus on what’s not going to mess them up,” Elgersma says. Do a little research to find good content (shows, YouTube channels). Check out the Family Guides at CommonSenseMedia.org for app, TV, and movie recommendations by age. And though the American Academy of Pediatrics no longer has a blanket screen-time limit, they advise creating a Family Media Plan by filling out the questionnaire at HealthyChildren.org.