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Anti-Social Networking: How do texting and social media affect our children? Parents' questions and answers from CSC clinicians at the Nightingale-Bamford School

by Yamalis Diaz, PhD, Lori Evans, PhD and Richard Gallagher, PhD

girls texting and talking on cell phones

The NYU Child Study Center's Yamalis Diaz, Ph.D., Lori Evans, Ph.D., and Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., gave a panel discussion cosponsored by Parents In Action NYC at the Nightingale-Bamford School on November 14, 2011. The topic was "Anti-Social Networking: How do texting and social media affect our children's development?"

Below is an edited transcript of the question-and-answer portion of the talk. The questions came from parents who attended the talk in person. A synopsis of the talk is also available.

Question: If you install monitoring software so you can keep an eye on what kids are watching and doing online, do you tell them? What are the pros and cons?

Dr. Gallagher: I would say yes. You want to be able to have a trusting relationship with your kids. Even though monitoring them implies you don't trust them, in a certain sense, it's a good idea to let them know what you're doing. Let's say you did find something using the monitoring software that you needed to talk to them about. If you haven't told them they're being monitored, you have to get into a big discussion that might start with your kids saying, "How do you know that?" That conversation takes you off the real topic, which is that they were watching or doing something inappropriate.

Q: But if you install monitoring software, isn't that just encouraging kids to use their friends' computers to do things they don't want you to see?

Dr. Gallagher: Yes, it might have that effect. But if you remember growing up, you knew your parents were aware of some things you did, and then you did other things in settings where you knew they probably wouldn't find out. I'm pretty sure most kids in most eras have resorted to this.

But even when kids think their parents won't find out, knowing you disapprove may still lead them to be cautious and a little anxious about doing the things parents have suggested are a problem—which is a good thing. So I do think monitoring can send kids underground. But it means they have to be creative, and that coupled with the anxiety may make it less likely that they go looking for trouble, so to speak.

Dr. Evans: It also has to do with parents' reactions when you find something objectionable. When I was a teenager I was grounded for life—it didn't work. If you're reasonable, kids won't have to go underground. If it's a first offense, we all make mistakes on media. Cutting kids off completely usually doesn't work.

Q: My daughter is 11, and she is texting with all her friends, and I don't have the password to her iPhone. We've had long discussions about it and she really doesn't want to give us her password. She says it's an invasion of her privacy. What is the argument a parent can make here?

Dr. Gallagher: Personally I would say it's not negotiable. I would say to your daughter, if you want to have the iPhone, you need to give us the password. If we can't have the password, then give us the iPhone.

I think, especially for someone who is 11 years old, there is no such thing as an inalienable right to privacy. We know that is a dangerous possibility. We can let our kids know that we're not going to read every text. But we are going to look at the trends. Certainly you would want to know if there are upsetting or inappropriate things being communicated.

Good kids do bad things. Your child might be involved in things that are pretty reprehensible, things you wouldn't want to continue. Adults have to be responsible for checking up on kids and saying, I want to make sure you're acting appropriately and responsibly. It is important to monitor, and generally kids should not be allowed to have private passwords and deny parents access to their accounts.
Dr. Diaz: For those who haven't already gotten their kid an iPhone or an iPad, it's really important to have that conversation right at the outset. I just went through this with my sister and her 13-year-old son. He wanted a Facebook page, so they needed to go over exactly what the rules and regulations were before he was allowed to set up his account. We discussed with him exactly what the expectations would be.

For those of you who are now trying to go back and regain some control over things that you've already allowed, unfortunately it may be a tough discussion. But it comes down to the idea that the parent is supposed to retain the authority. If you want to retain authority as the parental figure, you have to say "These are the rules and regulations. If you want the phone, here are the expectations that come with having it."

Q: Until what age?

Dr. Diaz: An 11-year-old should not have the same expectations of independence that a 16-year-old might have. So it will change as your child gets older.

Dr. Evans: I think this goes back to knowing your own individual child. There are some kids I work with, and my own son included, I may be monitoring him right through college [laughter]. That's an exaggeration, but I've also monitored my daughter's texts and she is more responsible. So it's an individual decision. You should have control; when will you stop paying for the cell phone? If a child is responsible enough to have a job and pay for their phone, they might be entitled to more privacy. If you're paying for it because you're paying for college tuition too . . . . You'll know when your child is ready because you'll see yourself checking less, because there hasn't been anything that's cause for alarm. Reading your child's texts gets boring after a while!

Q: I have a 12-year-old, and she has the idea that she will be going on Facebook at age 13. We've said no, we don't want those things on her permanent record, we don't want her possibly being in touch with people we don't know. What age is appropriate? You mention it could hurt her socially, but part of me thinks it might help her academically. So how do we balance that in deciding when?

Dr. Gallagher: Facebook's own guidelines now say 13, but I believe they used to be 16. If your child wants a page early on, make sure you let him or her know you will be looking at the content, make sure to get the password, make it clear you are going to be checking.

Kids may say they want privacy, but they can feel trapped if they don't have a parental safety net. I heard about a situation in which a girl who was about 12 was texting with a kid she met at camp. There was a lot of inappropriate content coming her way, but there was no way for her to let her parents know and be able to get out of this situation. Her parents finally got access to the texts and found out this had been going on for several months. The girl was distressed but also relieved. We have to recognize that kids feel like they are under a lot of pressure, and if parents are monitoring and reviewing things, it can help them feel like they have an escape route. A lot of times they need and want guidance from parents.

Q: I've read that all this electronic stimuli actually changes how the brain functions, and that the brain adjusts, but it's not like a rubber band, it needs to adjust over time. Also these things can lead to addiction, for example boys getting addicted to video games. If that is true, how do you recognize an addiction, and what can you do? How do you recognize when there are changes in your child's cognitive capacity and how they think?

Dr. Evans: You have to go back to simple brain chemistry. Once you learn for the first time that two plus two equals four, your brain chemistry is forever changed. So everything we learn, everything we do, does affect the brain and how it functions. Studies—though they're limited, because it's hard to find kids who haven't been exposed to computers, to see what the differences are—have shown that more exposure to computers can decrease efficacy and reaction time. However even changing the location of what kids are doing on the computer screen can restore their abilities. Also, if you take a 20 minute power nap, your brain power will be restored, on a visual task. So we know some things, but what this means in the real world is much tougher to gauge.

When parents are wondering whether their children's media use is a problem, the first thing to ask is, are there any significant changes in behavior? Are they more reclusive? Are they not having friends over as much? Of course we argue with our kids about how much time they spend on the computer. But if you happen to get up at three in the morning and they've sneaked down—in other words, if you can't seem to set limits that are effective—it may be time to get help.

That said, all of these things within certain boundaries are typical for kids—it's exciting to sneak around. You have to see if your child's baseline is changing to the point where it is impairing his or her functioning. That's when you know you have a problem.

Dr. Gallagher: Making an analogy to TV, a couple years ago the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children under 2 should not watch any television. The reason is that it has been found in research studies that kids who have early exposure to television have less capacity to concentrate when they enter elementary school. When we think about some of these other types of media in terms of the rapid input, things that grab kids' attention very quickly and then quickly shift it, they are likely to lead to attention difficulties in the same way that TV does.

Q: Does this have a correlation with the increase in ADHD?

Dr. Gallagher: It may. We are also getting better at recognizing and diagnosing ADHD. But at the same time, these studies looked at the amount of television exposure kids had at early ages. They found that the more kids watched, the more difficulty they had with attention. The brain at that time is really working to become better at attention.

Another thing to keep in mind is that what kids aren't doing now—the activities they used to do instead of watching TV, or being on the computer—may be just as important a factor. Middle school and high school teachers are now finding that kids are unable to read cursive. They can't read handwriting because they don't see handwriting, they don't practice handwriting, and the computer doesn't print out handwriting. It is clear that the use of calculators has decreased people's capacity to engage in mental calculations. It is also clear that spelling is deteriorating very rapidly. These examples are another important part of understanding the effects technology is having on kids, outside the realm of emotions and behavior.

Q: When you tell us to get help, what is help? Where are the experts? Because if you go to a typical child psychologist or psychiatrist, many of them will tell you they don't have a clue about the effects of technology on kids.

Dr. Diaz: For most families this is about parents trying to limit a behavior—using the computer, playing video games—that is becoming an issue. So we're going to work on setting clear expectations and limits around that behavior, and some appropriate positive and negative consequences, just as we would with any other behavior that was causing conflict at home or at school. So if your child is on the computer too much and it's really a problem to get her off the computer, and it's a nightly conflict and there is arguing and it escalates to aggression, we're not just working to get your child off the computer. In my parenting work and my practice, I always remind parents that our end goal is to make sure they feel like they're in a position of authority and can manage children's behavior, while still giving kids appropriate independence, a lot positive feedback, and a quality relationship.

I don't think you need to take your child to an expert in computer game addiction, unless there is substance abuse or some other possible addiction as well. See a child psychologist who can give you some good behavioral strategies and help get the behavior under control.

Q: My kids' school has a philosophy of not introducing media and computers until kids are older, like sixth grade. I've noticed that kids who use a lot of media have an inability to play. My kids can play for hours, and they are better able to interact socially with other kids without the intermediary of the media. I'm really concerned about what it is going to mean for human evolution if kids don't play, and the role of play for developing minds and emotions and social interactions. People might not be able to interact directly. Any thoughts or studies on that?

Dr. Gallagher: I'm not aware of any studies on that. There are some concerns about creativity and what kids are able to do to keep themselves occupied. We did a single experiment for a television show I was involved with. We worked with a family that always took car trips with their young kids with a video playing. The family was willing to try not having a video on a short trip, two and a half hours. When they were interviewed afterwards, they said the first half hour was torture, the kids were complaining about having no video to watch. But then the parents started remembering games that they played on trips when they were children, and the family started having a lot of positive interaction. In the interview they said it was actually great, they got to know each other better, it was a lot of fun, and it was well worth it. And the kids said the same thing.

So we shouldn't ban computers and videos and video games, but kids do need opportunities to find other things to entertain themselves with, away from media. Parents might say, okay, for this portion of these weekend days, you need to figure out what you're going to do with yourself. We as parents are available too, to be able to do things with you, but you need to figure it out.

Dr. Evans: There is also no evidence that if you don't watch TV for the first 12 years of your life that nothing but good things are going to happen as a result. That is the other part. But you don't need to learn to keyboard at age 4, it doesn't matter, you'll learn it eventually. Having kids just play and be creative sounds wonderful.

Q: How does this work in practice at home on a day-to-day basis? Should we be limiting media time to 30 minutes, or an hour or two on the weekends?

Dr. Evans: There is no rule that says it should be 20 minutes or 30 minutes. It's about setting some guidelines that you feel are appropriate for your children and letting them know in advance that those are the ground rules. There should be some limits. It should not be, you've completed your homework so now you have free rein for the rest of the night. But in order to make that effective, you need to help kids remember how to play and remind them of other things they can do. For kids who like sports, for instance, they probably have just as much fun being active, though it's hard to do that at 8 p.m. in an apartment. I would encourage every parent to find your own limits that you can tolerate. There are lots of families who have "screen time" only on weekends, or make it contingent on other behaviors, "when-then" policies: when you've completed this, you get this much time on the computer.
Q: My daughter is in 9th grade. She has been wanting a Facebook page and we've kept putting it off. Now it has come to my attention that she is using her friends' pages to go on Facebook and look at photos, and maybe even make comments. My husband says, well, if she is doing that, we might as well just let her have her own page and then we could monitor it better. My question is, if we give her permission, can we tie this to grades and academics and say that if she doesn't keep her grades at a certain level, then she won't get to have a Facebook page anymore?

Dr. Diaz: If you were in my office right now, I would say there are two things to consider when making a decision about Facebook. First, what are your concerns about your daughter using it? Can you have discussions and set appropriate guidelines and limits that would allow you to monitor those concerns? And secondly, would this put her in a position to interact in a developmentally appropriate way with her peers? That is something that parents do need to consider. This is why kids are asking; so many are doing it. Just like back in the day when my mom let me go to the mall because everybody went to the mall on Saturdays, they had to consider whether that was developmentally appropriate at the time. Then there are some limits that you'll want to set, to say to your daughter, if your grades start to suffer or you start to spend more than X amount of time on Facebook, we will have to limit your use. Those are appropriate limits for any parent to set, for Facebook or any type of media use. You get to decide what those limits are.

Q: Is 14 too young to go on Facebook, in your opinion?

Dr. Diaz: Fourteen is not too young in my opinion. I think 14 is appropriate, with some guidance.

Q: What about kids sharing access to Facebook pages?

Dr. Diaz: I think what typically happens is that your child is at someone's house and her friend has her Facebook page open. Your child jumps on and starts sending messages to their mutual friends, looking at photos, commenting. So sometimes even when you as a parent have restricted your child's access, they are still getting access in other ways.

Dr. Evans: You do have to be very careful about this. If you came up to me after this talk and said, oh, can I borrow your cell phone, I don't have mine, I'd probably let you use it because you look like a nice person. Hopefully you're not texting something inappropriate from my number. We train kids to be nice to their friends, to say, sure, you can send a message from my Facebook account, or my phone, but kids should make sure they only do this with friends they really trust.

Q: The reality is that a lot of kids have Facebook by 8th grade or certainly 9th grade. There are social ramifications to not having it. But what happens then is that the ages keep getting younger and younger.

Dr. Gallagher: The questions with regard to age are pretty important. I would be very cautious during middle school. I'm thinking of 6th, 7th and 8th grade in traditional public middle schools. That is a time period when the social interactions between kids can be really harsh, not always, but they can be. Kids this age think very little about the future. Their immediate concerns are what's for lunch, or what is going to be happening in my interactions with my friends in the next hour, but they don't think much in the long term. So I do think that 9th grade, unless it's being monitored very carefully, is more appropriate. Kids are truly on a stage in middle school and everyone is looking and commenting and seeing how other kids respond.

Q: Let's say we have parental controls on the computer, and it's out there in the open and everyone in the family knows it's not private. Don't kids deserve some privacy, on their cell phones, for instance?

Dr. Gallagher: Within limits I do think you can provide some privacy. But I don't think that means blanket privacy. If they're having a conversation with somebody, you can let them have privacy. If you generally know with whom they're texting, you don't have to know about each and every text. But I do think that it's good to have some general guidelines saying, I'm going to be checking in once in a while. I'm not going to listen in and I'm not going to read or ask you about each and every comment, but I want to know what the trend is.

Q: Even for a 16-year-old?

Dr. Gallagher: Even for a 16-year-old I think this can be appropriate.

Q: I have a question about parents as examples. We were on a family vacation and there was supposed to be no tech, and my husband is working, even on Saturday and Sunday. My son is like, Dad, what's with the BlackBerry?  So how do you set limits for your kids and tell them only two hours a day of screen time, when you as parents aren't doing this? I have a 17- and a 13-year-old, and I am definitely being called on this.

Dr. Evans: My son called me in from the other room to watch a beer commercial in which someone tosses a BlackBerry into the ocean. And he said, "Can we do that on vacation with your BlackBerry?" You're right, we do get called on it. If I told you what time last night we were emailing to prepare for this presentation, let's just say it did not make for good family time. We do have to be accountable as well. It's hard.

Q: Is there any gauge—are we more "successful" now that we can multitask and check email from home? Are kids grades going down, is academic performance deteriorating? Or is everything pretty much the same? Are we overreacting?

Dr. Gallagher: We do need to recognize that there is a tremendous amount of digital and electronic media used in certain countries that perform better on standardized tests than the U.S. does; in China, Denmark, and Japan, for instance, digital media are being used quite a bit, and those countries perform far better than the U.S. in math and science. But, at the same time, we have to recognize that things are not improving in the United States as one might expect. There has been a flattening of SAT scores, for example, and even some indication that they're going down. Researchers need to investigate these things so we can better understand. We do know that with a certain level of media use, for example with television I believe the number is 12 hours a week, there is a definite drop in kids' grades. And other types of media use are not that distinct from television viewing. Access to the computer, texting, video games, social media—they're all taking time away from other things, and that may result in academic performance suffering.

Q: I have three sons and they are dying to have an Xbox, and I have said no because I don't want to have to deal with the constant temptation it will present and the conflict that might cause. But what I'm finding is that kids don't want to come to our house because we don't have an Xbox. I just really don't want it in our home; I think if they have a friend over, kids should play in other ways. But I also don't want my kids to be pariahs.

Dr. Diaz: What came to my mind is that my friends never came over when I was growing up because my mom only had healthy snacks. After school, no one wanted a healthy snack. So I was always at my friends' because they had all the good stuff. But I did fine socially, even though no one ever came to my house. So I think the social pressure of having an Xbox should not be the top reason to get one. If you decide to get an Xbox because it's fun, and you want your kids to have access to it and it's something you can limit, that is a different decision. But I don't think that your kids will be social outcasts because they don't have an Xbox at their house. I'm certain that they're still interacting with peers, they're still being invited over to peers' homes.

Q: What is a reasonable number of friends to have on Facebook?

Dr. Diaz: I'd say 3,405. And they know all of them!

Dr. Gallagher: It is known that people are able to effectively interact with about 150 people. After that it gets to be pretty inadequate. That is one reason why high schools are becoming smaller.

So to summarize this discussion, we're here to give guidelines and ideas, and we want parents to be in charge and aware of the potential benefits and negative effects of social media. But it does boil down to you as parents making some personal decisions, based on adhering to your values and how you hope your kids may turn out. We have a very diverse country. We have kids who are thriving in very different situations. Some kids have no electronics. There are kids right here in New York City who never watch television, don't have regular access to computers, and they are developing fine within their cultures.

You have to think about what kind of family culture you want to have, what kinds of practices you want kids to learn, and what kinds of behaviors you're going to accept or encourage. In the 1930s Margaret Mead said, "We are now at a point where we must educate our children in what no one knew yesterday." So these advances in technology have been happening for decades; we shouldn't be getting too scared about this stuff, we should be reasonable. What are our values, what do we want our kids to be able to do, what do we want them to be good at, and how do we want them to behave as people—these are still the main concerns.

Dr. Evans: Just as we say to our kids, it's all about going to school and their education, this is all about our education. The more we learn about social media, the more we know what our kids consume, the better. You're all here because you want to learn about this, and there are articles about it all the time—it's about being an educated consumer. What are the articles really saying? If my kid watched TV at age 2, it doesn't mean she'll have ADHD in kindergarten. But yet, what can I limit, what should I limit? Educate yourselves as much as you can.

Dr. Diaz: It's important to know your values and the kinds of things you want to promote in your children, and decide based on those how to set guidelines and limits around all of the activities they're engaging in. Everything in moderation. As a parent you get to say, this you can have, this you cannot, you can do this for 20 minutes, this for 30 minutes, you must do this before you do that. It's about feeling confident that you have the right to do that, because you are the parent—the CEO of that corporation.