The Teen Connection: Helping Teens Safely Navigate Social Media

By Dr. Melissa Arca

Teens are actively engaged in social media, social networking, and texting.  We know this, not simply by looking at the stats, but by seeing them around us. In the office, at coffee shops, and in their homes. Their smartphones and the world that is opened through various apps, plays a significant role in their social lives.

Teens are digitally plugged in throughout their day in an effort to stay connected to peers and family. And while they are incredibly adept at navigating online spaces and use new technology with ease; make no mistake that they still need our parental help and guidance to safely navigate their online lives.

Here are 5 ways to help them do that.

Be in the know. Did you know that 73% of online teens use Facebook and 24% are on Twitter? While these numbers are certainly a moving target among teens, we know that 90% of American teens are online. And the numbers are growing. Teens need to be online to connect with their peers. Texting, sharing on Facebook, talking on Twitter, commenting on Instagram photos…it’s the new hangout for our teens.

And while many teens still prefer face to face communication, the reality for them today is that social media bridges this gap between busy schedules and the inability to meet up in person. Teens have a strong desire and need to connect with their peers. Social media has allowed them to do so.

But we also know the major pitfalls of being online and connecting during the teen years. The visibility, permanency, and potentially addictive nature of online use can wreak havoc for teens if we’re not there to help guide them in their online journey. And really, we need to know about these online spaces and be able to navigate them somewhat easily ourselves.

The bottom line is, we need to be mindful that raising good kids also means raising good digital citizens. We can’t really do that effectively if we don’t know where they are online.

Communicate. Talk with your teens about their online use. It’s a big part of their lives. Ask them about their digital day. Who did they chat with? Did something happen online today that made them sad or angry? What fun or cool ideas did they see or share online? Use dinner and bedtime to open these lines of communication. Let them know you are their safe person to come to for concerns or questions about the internet.

Talk with them about appropriate online behavior. Protecting their own privacy, not sharing embarrassing information/photos about themselves or others, not spreading rumors, and using the power of social media to create positive interactions. Remind them about the permanence of all such online use. Even texts. And, that the golden rule applies to online spaces just as it does in real life.

Discuss the potential drawbacks like cyberbullying, sleep deprivation, stress, and anxiety that online use may lend itself to. And remind them over and over again…never stay silent about cyberbullying. No matter what. Tell someone. Get help. Silence only gives cyberbullying more power.

Give them space. Teens desire privacy from adult eyes. That’s for sure and has been true since the beginning of time. A little trust and freedom will go a long way. Just be open about your monitoring. It’s not about stalking and knowing every single detail about their online life. It’s about communication and being there for them when they need you.

Create family screen rules, together. We all need to monitor the time we spend online, not just teens. So create some family screen rules together that seem fair and help everyone keep their online use in check.  A few suggestions: have screen free zones in the house such as bedrooms (no electronics in bed!) and the dinner table, set timers when you have other activities to get to (30 minutes then it’s time to go for a walk), give handheld gadgets a curfew (preferably an hour before lights out), and agree to never engage in threats/bullying/rumors.

Come up with reasonable consequences when someone breaks a family screen rule.

Unplug to strengthen your connection. We all need time away from online mental clutter once in a while. And, we know teens want this too. Help them by having a day, an afternoon, or even a week of going completely screen free. Use this time to get outdoors, read a book, or simply hang out face to face. These are the moments that truly count anyway.

You just can’t reach out and hug someone when your hands/mind/face are enmeshed with a digital screen.

How do you monitor your teen’s online use? Any helpful tips to share?

More Reading and Resources for Parents and Teens:

Common Sense Media: Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives

Pew Internet: Teens, Social Media, and Privacy

AAP: Talking to Kids and Teens about Social Media and Sexting

It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

 

Dr. Melissa Arca is a pediatrician, mom of two, writer, blogger, and child advocate. She is author of the award winning blog, Confessions of a Dr. Mom and writes a weekly parenting/children’s health column for her local paper, The Sacramento Bee. In her free time you can find her at the beach with her husband and two kids (ages 5 and 7), coffee in hand.