How to manage your child’s social media use

I can still remember the day my father taught me how to play craps, one of the most popular table games in a casino. I was probably 7 or 8 years old and my dad had a little plastic miniature craps table that he had spread out over his bed and I remember showing me what each part of the craps table meant and what it meant the best bets were to be made. At the time, it didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary: my father had already taught me and my brother a variety of poker games. However, as a man in his mid-30s, I can now appreciate the uniqueness of teaching your son what a “pass line” is from an early age in elementary school.

Knowing this fact about me and my family, it is perhaps a little less surprising that my father has given me and my siblings casino money as Christmas gifts on several occasions (and there is a casino less than 5 minutes from my parents’ house is). On our last Christmas trip, my older sister and I each had $100 in Christmas bonuses to spend at the casino. My sister is a big penny pincher: the thought of losing money to something as pointless as a casino pains her. While she ended up pocketing only her $100, I couldn’t leave the casino without taking a risk, so I went to the roulette table and put $100 on red. The ball rolled around and around before finally landing on “red 25”. and I left the casino for $100.

I can still remember my thoughts going from “Nice! I have $200 that I didn’t have 30 minutes ago.” to “But maybe I should see if I can make $400 out of it. I mean, black is probably due.” What makes gambling so addictive is the fact that you don’t know what’s going to happen next time. It could get really exciting; it couldn’t. All you have to do is take another swipe, twist, or pull to find out.

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Gambling can be addictive due to what we call “temporary reinforcement,” meaning we don’t get a reward (or punishment) every time we engage in an activity. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. Think slot machines for a second. Every time you pull the lever (or push the button on today’s slots) there’s a chance you could hit the jackpot. But you could also win a few hundred dollars, or maybe just $10, or you could lose your money. Since the outcome isn’t the same, you become conditioned to want to keep trying as your brain thinks that the next big win might be just around the corner.

Why talk about it in a mental health column?

Well, just like gambling can be addictive due to reinforcement, so can social media. Have you ever found your kid (or yourself) frozen on TikTok for hours? Well, it’s because of the intermittent reinforcement. Every time your brain sees a video or image you like, it releases a tiny shot of dopamine, a feel-good chemical in your brain. But the video is probably over in about 30 seconds, and your brain wants more dopamine, so swipe to the next video. Each video promises something funny or unbelievable, just like every hit on the slot machine promises to win the jackpot. One teen told me they used TikTok to calm down because it was “calming.”

The problems with this are obvious. First, you can’t just pull TikTok out to calm down whenever you want. Second, any time we resort to a particular behavior to deal with negative emotions, we need to be aware of the potential for addiction. So what can you as a parent do to control your kids’ (or maybe your own) use of social media?

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Start by limiting the time in the app. Adolescent brains aren’t fully formed yet, so they need guidance to manage their time. Give them a limited time in the app so they can learn to finish it.

Second, talk to them about how much scrolling through social media is looking for the next dopamine hit, but also highlight how many of the videos aren’t actually that entertaining or funny. Often we don’t even take the time to think about the countless “boring” videos we’ve watched to get to the really good ones.

And third, don’t be afraid to be the parent and enforce restrictions. While kids definitely won’t like it, they do need your guidance and guidance as they often take the path of least resistance when allowed!

Mischa McCray is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Greenwood. He can be reached at [email protected].