Therapy Space With Dr. Sara: Social Media

There is a constant back and forth in my home around social media. My soon-to-be 7th grader pleads with me to let her use Snapchat or Instagram or FB. Except for FB, I have never used these myself so I am not fully aware of how they work. I am so so tired of the nagging, I want to just say, “fine.” I figure since her friend’s parents allow them access, they must know something I don’t. Yet, I am conflicted because just giving into social media doesn’t feel right either. I need some guidance!

Like most parents, I can appreciate your predicament. There are persuasive arguments on all fronts plus we are traversing through new territory in the Information Age. I believe the conflict you are feeling is your intuition encouraging you to slow-down, as “just giving in” to something feels unsettling. By slowing down to gather information, you can make an informed decision. For starters, it is important to acknowledge your daughter’s request and her strong emotions. Let her know you are actively gathering information to make a knowledgeable decision, one that works for your family. Other parents can impart wisdom, but ultimately you must make parenting choices that align with your values and knowledge of your specific child. If you have a co-parent, explore this area together and develop a unified plan so that your daughter hears the same message from both parents. 

In 2016, Merriam-Webster defined social media as "Forms of electronic communication (such as Web sites) through which people create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, etc." This sounds promising, in fact, so promising that some schools have turned specifically to social media as a learning tool in the classroom. When a seventh-grade teacher in Oregon successfully integrated social media into her classroom, grades improved and absenteeism dropped. The potential for instructional learning is boundless, including global communication, differentiation, and innovation for all students. It is important to keep in mind that these teachers are required to attend professional development. There is an emphasis on teaching Internet safety through on-going conversations and updated policy and promoting awareness of ones’ on-line reputation.  

Via the Internet, children have access to all sorts of amazing information that can enhance learning and peak curiosity. In addition, specific social media platforms have been developed for younger users and are worth looking into. For the sake of this article, I will refer to the platforms you mentioned, as these are the most popular. It is important to note, these do not account for the developing brain. The age restrictions are in place to prevent companies from collecting information from children. 

I mention the “developing brain” because it serves as the driving force behind decision-making. A child’s brain is constantly reorganizing based on experiences. This is called neuroplasticity. During its development, the brain is becoming fine-tuned for survival. Children’s highly adaptable brains are shaped by the frequency, consistency, and intensity of the information received.  Example: A child is consistently chosen last in PE class. Patterns of neuronal firing may account for the release of stress hormones prior to class. This anxious response can lead to class avoidance and identification as a “non-athlete,” thereby shaping the child’s sense of self/identity. 

There are discrepancies within the developing brain, for example a lag in the prefrontal cortex responsible for decision-making and planning. The pleasure receptors and basic reptilian, fight-or-flight parts of the brain dominates decision-making, promoting impulsivity. How does this apply to instantaneous modes of communication such as with Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook? We are social creatures who thrive on connecting, and as children age, they become increasingly sensitive to peer feedback. Example: Someone receives the message, “All my friends think you are gorgeous!” A child is likely to respond based on impulse and reward (Does this feel good? Am I being accepted/or rejected?” The short-sited, impulsive brain is driven by social acceptance, which may override any red flags. Social comparison is inevitable. Yet having 24-hour access to the exciting lives your peers are leading and the attention they receive challenges a child to perfect his/her own persona. Self-reflection is sacrificed. The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt in Baltimore conducted a study where they found that “32% of users feel sad when comparing Facebook photos of themselves to those of their friends.” 

A high school teacher recently told me a story that stuck with me. A new school year had started and he made his way to the student lounge, a place known for its volume and high energy. An eerie feeling washed over him. The room was packed yet you could hear a pin drop. Every student was engaged with technology and not with one another. 

What is being missed with the use of social media? Eye contact, body language, tone of voice, real-time explanations, etc. As social beings, we are constantly and unconsciously reading one another. This skill is actually a powerful precursor to the development of empathy and reasoning skills. When I laughed, that person didn’t laugh too; they looked uncomfortable. Why? Or, that person says he is 17, but he actually looks 30. How do I know this? Without consistent face-to-face time, we lose context and opportunities to gain life-long communication skills. We also hear about widespread “careless” bullying via social media. Seeking identification with the crowd, a child clicks “like” on an insensitive or mean-spirited post. Unfazed, he moves onto another post, unaware of the negative impact his “like” may have just had on another person. Had this been a live exchange, this same individual would never fathom engaging in public ridicule because filters that cultivate empathy would be activated in a face-to-face social setting. 

My 14 year-old niece must wait until she’s 16 to create any social media accounts. My sister is not winning any popularity contests over this. According to the site GuardianChild, 38% of Facebook users in the last year were under the age of 13. My sister has decided that she prefers friendships be established outside of social media and wants to maintain, for the most part, insight into her daughter’s social world. She believes by age 16, my niece will be more “formed” and less easily swayed. My niece sullenly reports feeling left out, disconnected to those far away, and out of touch. However, this particular dynamic - mother and child - collectively take a sad pause. My niece states, “But I know bad things can happen. What’s positive about not being on social media is that there is a reduced risk for me.” She should know. Last year her classmate was murdered by a man she met via social media. “We all had a realization of the real world and it is sad.” *

Social media is not going away. Due to the pros and cons, what you decide will probably feel like the “mostly-right” decision. Here are some guidelines that align with the information I have outlined. Balance! Their brains are impressionable. Encourage opportunities that promote face-to-face connections and set times for social media use. It can be addictive. Familiarize yourself with privacy settings and communicate your boundaries. Monitor what is going on as a social media friend/follower. Start dialogues around the material you observe, employing curiosity not judgment. What might a future employer think of that photo? How else could this message be interpreted? What are possible reasons someone could be asking for that info? What do you see when you look at this picture? Let’s ask everyone in the family for their impression of this photo. 

You will be fostering reasoning skills, empathy, and long-term thinking. Remember, you can adapt your guidelines along the way based on what you observe. Your child is turning to their friends for acceptance, but research confirms the essential role parents continue to have through teaching and modeling organizational skills, boundaries for safety, consistent face-to-face support (that means turning off your phone too) reasoning skills, and healthy self-soothing techniques. 

Best of luck!


* My niece’s school formed a chapter with Help Save the Next Girl. “We participate actively in endorsing legislation which augments safety practices in our communities. Through diligent activism in education, victim support, and legislation, we create a strong foundation against violence as we strive to help save the next girl.” For more information, visit

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Dr. Sara Edrington is a clinical psychologist practicing in San Rafael. She is passionate about her work with adults, adolescents, and couples, using an interactive approach that explores neurobiology, shame, trauma, relationships, parenting and managing stress during life-transitions. She received her Doctorate in Psychology in 2005 at the Los Angeles campus of the CA School of Professional Psychology. She is the Co-founder of Pacific Psychology and on-going supervisor to new professionals. She holds a certification in early childhood education, has presented at several high schools, and works to bring learning outside the classroom through community service, which has enhanced her own personal and professional growth. She is the proud mother of a spirited daughter and son who keep her on her toes, even when everyone should be sleeping.

Dr. Edrington can be reached at 415-690-8208.