If you’re the parent of a tween or teenager, you’re likely concerned about their use of social media — a Pew Research Center study found that, among 13- and 14-year-olds, 57 per cent were on Facebook, 21 per cent were on Twitter, and 44 per cent were on Instagram. Fortunately, Dr Marion Underwood, coauthor of the new report “Being Thirteen: Social Media and the Hidden World of Adolescents’ Peer Culture,” says there is a lot parents can do to help their kids handle the complexities of social media and most children even viewed their parents’ involvement in their online lives favourably. Dr Underwood observes that “children who felt like their parents were monitoring their activity online were noticeably less distressed by online conflict.” In a new article in The New York Times, she and other experts offer parents tips on how to help their children start their social media lives on solid footing, as well as how to strike that delicate balance between guiding children and letting them learn from their own mistakes.

Based on their findings, the study’s authors encourage parents to let teens try social media, but say that boundaries should be clear — including a stipulation that a parent will be following or friending her to keep an eye on things. At the same time, Dr Underwood discourages parents from commenting too often on their children’s posts: “Your job is to be the silent, watchful friend” so that children are more likely to listen to your concerns when you raise them. She also recommends that children start with Instagram, where most children post “funny positive things” and follow the unwritten rule of only posting once a day, but commenting frequently; she recommends against Twitter, where the “blurt out whatever’s in your head” attitude is more likely to lead to negative behaviour.

Parents should keep an eye out for “lurking” — that is, spending significant time viewing a social media site without posting — since it’s often a sign that teens are distressed by comparing their own, ordinary lives to “everyone else’s filtered, carefully selected pictures chosen to be the most positive depiction of themselves having a marvelous time.” The study found that one-third of teenagers check social media without posting 25 times or more per day on weekends. If your teen is “glued to Twitter or Instagram… ask them what’s happening,” Dr Underwood urges. You can even use your own social media feed as a teaching tool: Betsy Brown Braun, a child development and behaviour specialist, says that seeing your own friends sharing stories of impressive accomplishments or special events that you aren’t invited to will make her “likely to come to you to talk and for support” when she’s feeling left out of her own peer group.

Parents should also keep in mind that their teens’ posts don’t tell the whole story, because they’re also presenting their best selves online. “The most vigilant parent could read every word of a child’s feed and still not detect hurtful behaviour,” Dr Underwood reminds us. So make sure that you’re conversing with your child offline about the events in her life as well — especially as she matures and the way she uses social media changes. “At 13, it’s really cool to post lots of pictures of yourself having fun with friends,” she says. “As they get older, that’s a little uncouth, the response is like, why are you doing this, are you desperate to show you have friends? I think they get more cognitively sophisticated and aware of their impact on other people.”

The social life of teens is always going to be complicated, so it’s important to remember that there’s a lot of learning that happens in these situations: Ms Braun says it sometimes feels like it would be great “if we could immunise our children (and ourselves) from getting our feelings hurt or feeling bad…

[but] through these sometimes dreadful and painful experiences, great social and emotional learning and growth happens”. Moreover, helping your kids with social media teaches them an important lesson about your own relationship: when parents watch over teens on social media, Dr Underwood says, “children perceive that their parents care about their online lives”.

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additional resources
You can read more about these tips for teaching teens about social media on The New York Times at:
http://nyti.ms/1PDWsOf

For a newly released parenting book specifically focused on teaching children to show empathy and kindness online, we highly recommend “Kindness Wins: A Simple, No-Nonsense Guide to Teaching Our Kids How to be Kind Online” at:
http://www.amightygirl.com/kindness-wins

For more advice on teaching children to use social media responsibly, check out
“Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age” at:
http://www.amightygirl.com/talking-back-to-facebook

For a great resource for teens about online life, check out “lol…OMG! What Every Student Needs to Know about Online Reputation Management, Digital Citizenship, and Cyberbullying” at:
http://www.amightygirl.com/lol-omg