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Perspective: Parents are responsible for their children’s screen use, not the government

Kate Winslet is right that the world of social media and cyberbullying is disturbing. But there are steps parents can take to protect their children

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“Utterly powerless.” That’s how actress Kate Winslet says parents feel about their children’s social media use.

In an interview before the premiere of her film “I Am Ruth” (which is about a girl who suffers a mental breakdown because of the messages she is getting online), Winslet says she wants the government to get more involved in regulating social media for children.

Winslet is correct, of course, that the experience some kids are having on their phones can be deeply disturbing and even life-altering, but she’s wrong that parents are powerless.

The movie, which also stars Winslet’s real-life daughter, is centered on the single mother of a 17-year-old who is becoming more and more withdrawn.

But that 17-year-old was once a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old, and the question is what was going on before. How did the girl become so dependent on that small screen in her hand? Was anyone restricting her use of that phone? Or teaching her the importance of putting it down occasionally?

Even if the government did more to regulate social media for children, it’s not clear what effect that would have on someone who is almost an adult. The burden here is on parents. 

Winslet notes that “we don’t know really what’s going on in their friendship groups anymore because so much of it is actually built on phones, inside phones.” But that in and of itself is a problem that parents let fester. 

The first question is whether kids are forming enough in-person friendships. When children are younger, parents have to take on this responsibility. It is easy to let children play on screens and connect with other kids (or really anyone) virtually. In a previous era, parents could just open the door and let kids out to play in the neighborhood. But now ensuring kids have face-time (not FaceTime) with peers outside of school requires playdates and other activities. 

But the other danger is that in-person friendships migrate online and become much more toxic. “This world that you can burrow deeper and deeper into it, and it becomes darker and trickier and much, much harder for children to navigate,” says Winslet.

This is why parents need to wait until children are older before giving them access to smartphones and then must monitor their activity well into their teenage years, as annoying and time-consuming as that may be.

The actress notes that “because young children are having phones at a much earlier age, they’re able to access things that emotionally they’re just not equipped or sophisticated enough to know how to process.” 

No kidding. But members of Congress (or Parliament) are not going to fix this problem. They’re not the ones buying your kids phones. 

If parents are going to give kids access to phones, there are important lessons children need to understand before they interact socially on them, whether through social media or text messages or even email.

For one thing, everything they write is permanent. This is perhaps the most difficult lesson because adolescents have so little capacity to understand the effects of their actions next week let alone 10 years down the road. Frankly, there are plenty of adults who fail to understand this. Would you mind if your school principal saw that text message? Yes? Then probably best not to send it.

Kids also need to understand why they should never take any pictures or pass any pictures to anyone else without the permission of the person in them. Someone once told me that the most dangerous feature of a smartphone is not any social media app. It’s actually the camera. 

Which brings us to the hardest lesson for children (and adults) to learn about the internet. The things they see there are usually not real. Or even if they are real, they are not representative. It’s not just the people bragging about their vacations, or the pictures of very thin airbrushed models that we need to learn to ignore. We need to be able to put the things we see online in context. Does what we are seeing in a virtual world match our experience of the real world? 

These are subtle but very important lessons that no government agency is going to be able to teach our children. Maybe government restrictions on social media for children (as my American Enterprise Institute colleagues Yuval Levin and Christine Rosen have suggested) would be worth considering, but so much of the content that is harmful to kids is coming from YouTube videos or group texts. They can access too much adult content and are subject to constant communication from their friends and peers, often messages that are bullying and kept secret from adults. 

Films like “I Am Ruth” are important because they can alert adults to the dangers that smartphone use poses to children. But the message for parents should not be to lobby lawmakers. It should be to change what is going on inside their own homes. 

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a Deseret News contributor. She is the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books