Socialization is important for teenagers and, frankly, for all of us — a lesson proven by the pandemic. But when it comes to online socialization for our teens, and specifically social media, how much is too much? Where do you draw the line? And how do you protect your kid from dangers lurking online?
To get some answers, we talked to Dr. Ravi Shankar, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at MU Health Care. Here are his six tips for managing social media use with teenagers:
1. Recognize the Pros and Cons of Social Media Engagement for Teens
Parenting teens means constantly engaging in a delicate balancing act between risks and rewards — you want them to spread their wings, learn new things and engage with the world, but you also want them to be safe. Managing your teen's use of social media is no exception. Engaging in social media — much like learning to drive or starting to date — is risky but does have a payoff.
How Social Media Helps
Social media helps teens stay connected and reach beyond the barriers of their school, church or town to open up their world. Like-minded teens can find a supportive space online to share hobbies or interests — a definite win for self-esteem and confidence. Social media also offers platforms and peers for teenagers who may be dealing with a physical disability, working through emotional issues or exploring their religion, sexuality or gender identity.
How Social Media Hurts
Unfortunately, social media exists within a screen. So it's harder to know anything about the people your teen meets online. On top of that, it can be way too easy for kids to be one click away from content or situations that aren't suitable for their age — whether they actively look for it or not.
When teens use social media, it opens them up to:
- Cyberbullying or the chance to bully others
- Exposure to inappropriate content
- Hazards associated with sharing private information, like identity theft
- Vulnerability to strangers
2. Explain the Dangers of Social Media to Your Child
As soon as your kid starts showing interest in social media, chat about the risks associated with certain online behaviors, including:
- Chatting with strangers: Your teen may know not to talk to strangers on the street, but make sure they understand that chatting with strangers online can be just as dangerous. Not everyone they meet through social media will have good intentions or be who they say they are.
- Oversharing: Sharing personal information online — like your picture, phone number, address, birthday or school — can put your child's identity and privacy at risk. It can also open your teen up to bullying or make them a target for strangers.
- Posting without consideration: Once your teen posts something online, they can't take it back, and they need to know that. Pictures and comments can resurface for the rest of their lives. If your teen's only concern is what's happening now, remind them that whatever they post can become a screenshot and get passed around or used as blackmail later.
3. Set Clear Social Media Boundaries for Teenagers
In most life circumstances — marriages, jobs, parenting — things tend to go smoother when there are clear expectations for all parties involved. So when it comes to setting your expectations for social media, avoid "laying down the law" or taking an all-or-nothing approach. Instead, discuss your thoughts with your teenager and negotiate with them to determine fair and realistic guidelines. Outline a punishment (including how long it will last) if the guidelines aren't met. Then, create a social media contract so you and your teen are clear on the agreement.
4. Adapt Social Media Use to Your Teen's Ability to Function
If your teen isn't performing basic daily functions well and you know they're spending lots of time online, you may need to revise the social media guidelines. Is your teen getting sleep? Is schoolwork getting done? Has their interest in "offline" activities changed?
If you see troubling patterns or behaviors, consider setting a temporary restriction on when or how often they are using social media. Be honest with your teen about why you're adapting the guidelines and remind them that the restriction is not forever.
5. Watch for Signs of Cyberbullying (and Other Negative Effects of Social Media)
Social media does not always paint a true picture of reality. Even adults find themselves curating their social media to show a certain side of life. Add teenage emotions and underdeveloped brains into the equation and things can get toxic pretty quickly. In fact, in a 2021 survey of 14- to 22-year-olds, one in four reported that while on social media they often encounter:
- Body shaming (29%)
- Racism (27%)
- Sexism (26%)
- Homophobic comments (23%)
The survey also revealed that almost 40% of teens say they've been bullied online. If you think your teen is the target of a cyberbully, look for signs including:
- Attempts to avoid school or school-related activities
- Lack of appetite
- Withdrawal from family and friends
Any noticeable change in your teen's behavior should be a red flag. Try talking to your teen about what's going on and reach out to your pediatrician, who knows your child and can connect you with additional resources.
6. Model Appropriate Social Media Behavior
Kids will have a hard time following your social media guidelines if you don't give them a good example to follow. Show — don't tell — them how to use technology safely and appropriately. Remember, if you can see their posts, they are likely looking at yours. When your teen is with you, put your phone down to give them your full attention. Looking at your phone during a conversation or reacting to every ping and notification can send the wrong message.
It may help the entire family (you included) to establish tech-free times or zones in the house. A great place to start is restricting screens during dinner time, while homework's being done and in the bedrooms.
Next Steps and Useful Resources
- Worried about your teen? Learn more about our pediatric psychiatry services.