Parenting in the Digital Age
Family Counseling – Matone Counseling & Testing – Social Media
As a follow-up to my last article about taking a different, more positive perspective on teenage social media use, I thought it might be helpful to provide guidance on ways that parents can work with their teens in this area. There may be some parents who feel understandably concerned about their teenager’s online activity. There may also be some parents that feel frustrated due to their teenagers “checking out” with their constant use of these platforms. There are also more serious instances where teens may pose a risk to themselves or others in their online interactions and parents must intervene. These are all valid responses that parents might have to teenagers’ use of social media. So, what can be done to mitigate unhealthy and potentially dangerous online behavior, but at the same time foster a better working child-parent relationship? Here are a few tips that might provide some direction:
Tips for Teens’ Use of Social Media
Start the conversation at an early age
Teenagers today have grown up with technology their whole lives. In some cases, they may even have known how to navigate the basic workings of a cellphone before they could even talk. Therefore, it’s important to teach mindful, safe ways of interacting in the virtual world early on. Beginning the social media conversation around the age of 8 or 9 can lay the foundation for healthy use and further dialogue when they hit their teenage years. In many cases, this conversation will come up even sooner. Some parents might not feel comfortable with their teenagers having social media accounts until a pre-determined age. This is left to parental discretion as some kids might be more mature to navigate the online social world compared to others. However, it’s likely this time will come before parents feel totally ready to set their kids free to virtually roam. Talking about it at an early age can prepare both you and your child for what to expect when they venture online.
One way to create a more open dialogue about social media might be to talk about the pros and cons from almost a philosophical perspective.
Create a space that allows for informed conversations where teenagers can do their own cost-benefit analysis of social media. Ask questions about where they see technology and phones going in the next decade, how they view the constant influx of information, or what they would change about certain social media apps. This is also the time to discuss what unhealthy or dangerous behavior looks like online and warning signs to look out for. Now, I’m sure you’re thinking: “There’s no way my kids will even look up from their phone to have this kind of conversation!” In this case, focusing on ways to calm your internal frustration first might be key. It is not uncommon for teenagers to shut adults out. They are in a developmental period where peer relationships take precedence, meaning that constant communication with friends feels incredibly important. Their self-concepts are also still forming in this stage and with the ability to now cultivate their desired identity online, considerable time is devoted to this. Practice patience and when you feel a moment of connection with your teen, try bringing the topic up again and let them know you’re always there to talk.
A teaching moment
Aside from managing your own reactions to feeling shut out from your teenager, it’s important to teach healthy ways to use these social media platforms. One area that must be addressed is setting limits on the amount of time spent online.
Statistics show that teenagers spend up to 9 hours a day looking at screens (AACP, 2020).
Teaching time management is a necessary skill that kids must learn and put into practice. There are now features on most phones that monitor screen time and produce reports of how much time you spend on each app. Parents can work with their teenagers to establish rules and set reasonable limits on screen time. Depending on the age of your child, appropriate limits might look like shutting the phone off an hour before bedtime, not having the phone at the dinner table, losing screen privileges if rules are not followed, etc. Setting these clear, structured limits can start when children first begin using electronic devices such as tablets so that there are no surprises when they are enforced.
Another essential component of healthy social media use is teaching teens to be more conscious about how they spend their time on these platforms. Who they follow influences what kind of content they’re consuming. Encourage them to find positive social media accounts that can offer more than mindless scrolling, but instead, be a source of inspiration. There is just about any kind of niche you can think of in the social media verse and it’s a great way for teenagers to find something that interests them. This may also connect them to others who share their passions and can lead to increased self-esteem and a sense of belonging.
In addition, there are many valuable lessons that can be taught when having conversations about social media. Areas you might explore are how to make meaningful connections on- and offline, how comparison to others can be damaging, how being popular online is not a determinant of one’s self-worth, and the importance of being true to who you are, not to who you think others want you to be. One of the most effective ways of teaching children skills and healthy behaviors is to model them, aka “Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk.” One of the primary ways that kids learn is through observation. Some ways that parents might model healthy social media usage are:
▪ Giving them moments of undivided attention that are not interrupted by your electronic devices.
▪ Setting your own time limits on phone usage.
▪ Not making judgmental remarks about the way people look online.
▪ Showing them accounts that you follow that are positive and empowering.
Pay attention to mood and behavior changes
Since we cannot know everything that teenagers are doing on the Internet, what we can work with instead is what we observe. If you notice a significant shift in your teenager’s behavior such as irritability, trouble sleeping, appetite changes, or isolation, these should alert you to check in with them about what might be going on in their lives. This is even more of a reason to create a safe, non-judgmental environment that invites teenagers to freely discuss the challenges that they may be facing. We don’t want them to feel like they must face them alone. It’s also important to teach teenagers how to check their own moods to identify when they might need to take a break from social media and technology. After all, self-regulation is one of the main goals that parents should be focused on during the teenage years.
When safety is a concern
If you suspect that your teenager is participating in unhealthy or dangerous behavior online, this is the time to be more direct with your approach. It would be ideal if teenagers disclosed all their activities to their parents, but this is hardly ever the case. When preparing your child for the social media world, talk to them about risky behaviors online such as accepting friend requests from strangers, sharing your location, and disclosing personal information. Adolescents desperately seek independence, but if they are harming themselves or others, parents must intervene. Safety is always a priority.
I believe that the more we pathologize social media use, the more it may potentially widen the gap between generations. For parents, this might also create more push-back from their teens to communicate openly and honestly. Providing a space for this conversation might require a different mindset. Parents who unremittingly make their qualms with social media known to their teenagers might have a more difficult time gathering information from them about what is going on in their world. Instead, work on creating a collaborative environment that allows for exploration of the good, bad, and ugly aspects of the virtual world. It’s guaranteed that teenagers will have a lot of interesting insight into what they like and dislike about social media and the increasing pressures that it may bring.
Written by: Emilie Adams
Emilie Adams is a staff writer and clinical intern at Matone Counseling and Testing. Emilie received her Bachelor’s in Finance from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and is currently pursuing her Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP). (2020, February). Screen Time and Children. Retrieved April 7, 2022, from https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-And-Watching-TV-054.aspx