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How to Raise a Happy Kid in the Digital Age

Rewrite the rules to coexist peacefully with devices, phones, and other modern stressors.

Rules for how to live happily are nothing new. But lately, our well-being -- and that of our kids -- seems to be in free fall. Depression, anxiety, and even youth suicide rates are increasing, as is cell phone and device use and the constant expectation to be "on." Raising kids to be happy in today's world isn't impossible: We just need to rewrite the rules for the digital age.

The quest to make sure our kids are happy may have led us in the wrong direction. While media and tech deserve some of the blame for our collective stress, no one really knows how much. However, we do know that turning everything off doesn't magically make us happier. In fact, studies show that some types of screen-based activities can be beneficial. As more research emerges on the impact of media and tech on kids' mental health, it confirms what we've always known about how to be happy: Supportive relationships, a feeling of self-worth, strong character, and other positive influences are what really matter. And while you can't mandate joy, supporting your kid -- both online and off -- creates an environment where happiness is there for the taking. These tips can help you raise a happy kid in the digital age:

Get gritty: Grit -- the combination of perseverance and resilience that helps you bounce back from disappointments -- plays an important role in well-being. At school, online, and even with friends, kids feel pressured to achieve something on the first try. Instead, instill what's called a "growth mindset," the process of trying, failing, and learning from mistakes. When they feel defeated, their inner voice will say, "You got this!"

Nourish their sense of self-worth: Likes, comments, and other indicators of online status are part of kids' social-media lives. But there's a tipping point when a kid's perfectly natural curiosity about what others think about them turns into a harmful fixation on peer validation that can cause depression. You can help inoculate your kid against this by fostering an internal sense of self-worth. Encourage activities and hobbies that give kids a sense of accomplishment on their own terms.

Be grateful: Being aware and thankful is a tried-and-true life hack that leads to a stronger sense of well-being. You can actually use media and tech to cultivate a sense of gratitude. Check out sites and apps that let kids help make the world a better place. Watch TV shows and movies that inspire gratitude. At home, create a culture of appreciation by discussing what you're grateful for.

Go outside: Seriously, that's all you need to do. Nature is scientifically proven to boost well-being. If you need inspiration, watch nature movies or download apps that encourage outdoor exploration. Or just put down your phone, close the laptop, turn off the TV, and go for a walk.

Foster connection: In the digital age, kids can make new friends and strengthen existing relationships online, whether it's in a rousing game of Fortnite, a few hearts on Instagram, or even a FaceTime session with the grandparents. But the happiest people are the ones who consistently find a balance between screens and the rest of life. And as the grown-ups, we're the ones who need to model healthy habits. So, carve out screen-free times at home. Unplug everything so you can make eye contact and really listen to family and friends without distractions. By all means, enjoy media together -- but set limits so it doesn't interfere with face-to-face interactions.

What Are Some Basic Gaming and Social Media Rules for Elementary Schoolers?

Young kids may not be on social media yet, but at this age, they start to interact with others in online worlds. Such video games, apps, and websites (like Animal Crossing or Minecraft) are closed environments where kids can explore, meet friends, and let their imaginations run free.

One challenge for parents and caregivers is helping kids balance time spent playing in these online worlds -- which can draw them in for long periods -- and time spent offline. And, even though online worlds have rules about behavior, some kids find ways around them. It's important to talk with children when you first introduce these games about how to avoid and respond to harmful behavior.

Kids younger than 6 probably shouldn't play in virtual worlds: If your kids can't yet read or write, they'll be frustrated in online worlds. Instead, look for preschool games that were designed for children this age.

Set up accounts together: By creating usernames and passwords together, you can walk your kids through the basics of safe and appropriate online behavior.

Make sure your children never share their passwords: Kids often give other children their passwords for help in a game. Explain that giving away a password is not safe and can be harmful for your child.

If you wouldn't let your children have unsupervised play dates, don't let them go online by themselves: Remember, the social skills they bring to online worlds are the same ones they have (or don't have) in real life.

Keep the devices in a central place: This lets you or other family members guide your child as they play online.

Review the apps and sites yourself: Make sure you check out apps and sites before you let your kids use them. Don't settle for the most popular apps, games, and sites. Look around for ones that appeal to your kid's interests or have an educational angle.

Set time limits: Make sure online play is balanced with offline play and other activities that are good for your kid's physical, emotional, and mental health.

Talk about how to behave online: Teach your kids a good rule of thumb: If they wouldn't say something to someone's face, they shouldn't say it online.

Show kids how to report misbehavior: If kids ever see something that makes them feel uncomfortable, upset, sad, or worried, let them know they should tell you or a trusted adult. Show your kids how to report inappropriate content or block other users. Explain that this is a healthy way to keep games and apps safe and fun for everyone.

Talk about money and what it means to your family: Some sites rely on users to buy extras. Explain your family values around spending money online. Be clear about what you expect your child to do when they come across an in-game purchase.

What Are Some Basic Social Media Rules for Middle Schoolers?

The number of preteens using social media is climbing. Kids age 8 to 12 spend an average of 18 minutes a day on social media, while teens spend about an hour and a half. Watching online videos on platforms like YouTube or TikTok is also a popular activity among kids and teens.

Whether your kids are already using social media or asking to get started, it's a good idea to teach them some basic rules. Here are some guidelines for helping middle school kids use social media safely and responsibly:

Follow the rules: Many social sites have an age minimum of 13 by law and for reasons of safety and privacy. Encourage kids to stick to age-appropriate sites.

Tell your kids to think before they post: Remind them that everything they post can be seen by a vast, invisible audience (otherwise known as friends of friends of friends). With middle schoolers, it's a good idea for parents and caregivers to have access to what their kids are doing online. That way, you can be sure that what they're posting is appropriate, and help your kids avoid doing something they'll regret later.

Make sure kids set their privacy settings: Privacy settings aren't foolproof, but they can be helpful. Take the time to learn about default settings and how to change the privacy settings on your kids' favorite sites and apps, and teach them how to be in control of what they share.

Kindness counts: Lots of sites have anonymous features, such as Q&As and discussion channels, that allow users to tell their friends what they think of them. Rule of thumb: If your kids wouldn't say it to someone's face, they shouldn't post it.

What Are Some Basic Social Media Rules for High Schoolers?

High school teens have their own lives online. They're checking their friends' posts (and sharing their own), watching their favorite shows, uploading photos and videos, playing games, video-chatting, and exploring their interests.

By high school, parents and caregivers hope kids understand the basics of online etiquette, such as thinking before posting, being kind, and using privacy settings. You can also teach your teens to keep a few more things in mind:

Anything on social media can be made public: Remind your teens that anyone can see what they post online -- even if they think no one will. Potential employers and college admissions staff often browse applicants' social media accounts. Ask your teens to think about who might see their profiles and how others might interpret their posts.

Online posts can be cut, altered, pasted, and sent around: Once they put something online, it's out of their control, which means it can be taken out of context and used to hurt them or someone else. Tell them that stuff posted online can last forever. If they wouldn't put something on the wall of the school hallway, they shouldn't post it online.

Avoid drama and hurting others: Help them think about the consequences of forwarding harmful messages or embarrassing photos. It's also hurtful to pretend to be other people by using their accounts or creating fake ones.

Don't post your location: Many social media platforms allow kids to post their locations. Although it might be tempting to use these features to connect with friends, it's just not safe for teens.

Watch the clock: It's easy to spend a lot of time on social media if you're not careful. Hours and hours can go by, which isn't great for getting homework done, practicing sports or music, reading, or spending time with others.

How to Help Teens Manage the Effects of Social Media on Their Mental Health

Tips for families on balancing the risks and rewards of online communities.

Nearly four in 10 teens and young adults (38%) reported symptoms of moderate to severe depression in 2020, up from 25% in 2018. We often assume social media only amplifies the issue, but the truth is more complicated.

Teens can use social media and the internet to find mental health information, advice, or support. But teens with mental health challenges can be at risk for unhealthy behavior online.

For the many families dealing with mental health issues, help is available. You can use this list of mental health services and online tools to find resources for a range of needs. Also, consider the tips below to help your child balance the risks and rewards of social media.

Talk to your kids about the places they feel supported online. Kids who feel safe, supported, accepted, and understood are better able to make it through difficult times. Ask what they like about particular platforms and sites. What is it about the community that gives them a sense of belonging? Ask who they follow on social media and what they like about them. Show interest in their online lives and try not to judge.

Ask if they ever see things online that make them feel unsafe. Do they ever see racist comments, hate speech, sexual harassment, or bullying? How do they respond? Walk them through steps they can take. They can ignore the person, take screenshots for evidence, block the person on the platform, and report it to an adult. Tell them they can always come to you when something upsets them.

Think twice before taking away the phone. Before you shut off the phone or tablet as a consequence for their behavior, think about whether they're using the device to cope with mental health problems. The online world -- despite its faults -- can help kids stay connected with friends, find a supportive community, and get trustworthy health information. If you still need to take away the device, make sure they have access to alternative resources.

Pay close attention to social media if your kid is already struggling offline. Watch for warning signs of mental health problems. These might include drug/alcohol abuse, loss of energy, frequent sadness, or avoiding contact with others. Create a family media agreement. This can help you set expectations for what they do online and how much access you have to their social media accounts, and guide their decisions when you aren't around. Parental controls can help you manage what they do when you're not there.

Social Media Red Flags Parents Should Know About

Find out which social media features are cause for concern -- no matter which app your kid is using.

It can be hard to keep up with the latest apps that kids are using. Just when you've figured out how to talk to your kids about Instagram, they're begging to download Snapchat and TikTok. But here's the deal: Even when new apps come along, adding new features such as the ability to disappear or track your location, they're often not that different from other apps. And if you know what to look for, you can help your kid avoid some common social media pitfalls such as drama, cyberbullying, and oversharing.

Does a red flag mean your kid shouldn't use a particular app? Not at all. Most kids use social media apps safely -- and kids don't always use every feature of every app. Also, you can often disable certain features so they're no longer a problem. Finally, talking about using social media safely, responsibly, and respectfully is the best way to help your kid identify and avoid red flags. Here are the most common social media red flags, the apps they're found in, and tips for dealing with them.

Ads and in-app purchases: Some examples: Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok
Free apps have to make money somehow, so app developers offer marketers lots of opportunities to reach kids on their platforms, including product testimonials, embedded ad links, sponsored content, and chances to buy things.

  • What to do: Social media advertising can be deceptive because it's designed to look like the app's regular content. And although incremental in-app purchases for things like exclusive photo filters are inexpensive, they can really add up. To understand how apps make money, you have to spend some time on each one. Familiarize yourself with the types of ads coming at your kids, teach them to recognize different types of digital marketing, and talk about what to do if they're approached online by someone trying to sell something. As for in-app purchases, you can set spending limits or turn off the ability to make in-app purchases on your kid's phone.

Age-inappropriate content: Some examples: Instagram, Hive Social, Snapchat, TikTok, Tumblr

Friends can share explicit stuff via messaging (for example, sexting), but the bigger concern is whether an app features a lot of user-generated content that isn't appropriate to your kid's age. Your teen may not even need to follow users who are posting explicit stuff to come across it.

  • What to do: Ask your kid whom she follows, and ask to see what's being posted. Use the app yourself and get a sense of what comes up in an average feed (or features like Snapchat Discover). Then try searching for content you're concerned about and see how easy it is to find. Check the terms of use to see what the app allows and whether users can flag violators. If your kid uses TikTok, you can enable content restrictions that limit mature videos, but most social media platforms don't offer that feature.

Anonymity: Some examples: Lipsi, LMK: Anonymous Polls, Tellonym

Anonymity doesn't always breed cruelty, but it often does. On anonymous sites, people feel that their comments are consequence-free -- and end up hurting others. Also, though kids may feel safe enough to share sensitive or painful things they might not otherwise, they often don't get the necessary support or help -- and may get attacked.

  • What to do: Make sure your teen understands the risks involved and that they know how to block and report other users if necessary. Also, if they need connection but it's hard to talk about a problem (especially with you), give them opportunities to share with other safe, trusted people.

Cyberbullying: Some examples: Instagram, Snapchat, Roblox, Twitter

Though many apps have improved their monitoring and reporting features, cyberbullying is still a reality. It can happen on any social media app, but some have a notorious mean streak. If an app allows anonymous posting and is used in schools, chances are some teens will abuse it.

  • What to do: Ask around and pay attention to what parents, teachers, and other kids say about it to get a sense if it's stirring up trouble. Make sure your teen understands how to report and block other users, and check the school's policy about cyberbullying.

Location tracking and sharing: Some examples: Find My Friends, Instagram, Snapchat, Twenty (formerly Mappen), Twitter

Wherever you go, there you are -- and your social media apps know it. Though you may only indicate a city or neighborhood in a profile, allowing location identification often means that you're tracked within a city block, your posts can include your location, and anyone -- including strangers -- can see exactly where you are.

  • What to do: This is a tricky one because many parents like to keep track of their kids using an app like Life360. But you can keep location services on only for the app you use to find out your kid's whereabouts. Otherwise, turn off location settings in your kid's social media, then check to see whether previous posts include location information and delete it. If your kid uses Snapchat, they can go into "Ghost Mode," so people can't see their location.

Public default settings: Some examples: Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter

Many apps allow a user to have a public or private profile, only shared with friends; however, some apps are public by default, which means that a kid's name, picture, and posts are available to everyone.

  • What to do: As soon as you download the app, go into the settings to check the defaults. If a kid is using the same program on a browser, check there, too.

Random video chat: Some examples: HOLLA, Monkey, Wink

Any app that's inviting kids to "meet new friends" is facilitating chats with strangers in some way. In most cases this type of app likely has a lot of sexual content and adults trying to hook up.

  • What to do: Random chatting apps are unsafe. If your teen is truly trying to meet new friends, it might be best to start on an app that's interest-based with text-based group forums so they can find their people.

Real-time video streaming: Some examples: YouNow, Instagram, Twitch

Live streaming is just that -- live -- so it's very easy to share something you didn't mean to. Kids may use these apps in private (such as in their bedrooms) and inadvertently share personal information without knowing exactly who is watching. Though they may seem temporary, embarrassing or mean moments are easily captured and shared later.

  • What to do: Talk to your kids about why they want to share video of themselves and what they should and shouldn't share. Talk about positive, constructive uses of video sharing, such as creating shorts using editing programs or creating an interest-based channel to funnel your teen's creativity.

Secret chat rooms: Some examples: Discord, IMVU

Chat rooms can be invitation-only or drop-in. Both carry some risks because chat rooms allow for no-holds-barred conversations. Sometimes the chats are private for reasons like sexual content or hate speech. But sometimes kids create private groups to avoid the problems associated with public groups. Either way, chat rooms make it more difficult for parents to keep track of what their kids are doing online.

  • What to do: If your kid is creating or using a private chat room with friends to safeguard against strangers, that's OK, but they should tell you before they join a private chat so you can check it out first. In general, kids should be very cautious about joining chat rooms and be on the alert for predatory behavior.

"Temporary" pictures and videos: Some examples: Confide, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, Telegram Messenger

Nothing shared between devices is truly temporary, even when an app builds its whole marketing around it. Compromising pictures and texts get kids in real trouble because they believe what they're sending is private and will disappear.

  • What to do: Let your kids know that nothing they send is truly temporary, and it's easy for others to share what you've sent. Because it's often hard for kids to really consider consequences, and they might think it won't happen to them, it might be worth sharing some facts about kids getting in legal trouble because of "disappearing" pictures.

Toxic culture: Some examples: 4Chan, Discord, Twitch

Some sites and apps attract trolls and other confrontational types who want a place to express extreme views in an in-your-face way. Kids can be drawn to this provocative communication style and see it as a place to belong -- especially if they feel persecuted in other parts of their lives, -- but the interactions are often laced with bullying, sexism, hate speech, and other cruelties that can escalate quickly.

  • What to do: Toxic culture can really do a number on kids' self-esteem, and when they get involved in a negative environment, they tend to spread it around. Find out why your kid wants to use certain platforms, and then make sure they know how to report and deflect negativity.