Tips for Guiding Teens’ Use of Social Media

Photo by Libelul via Flickr
Photo by Libelul via Flickr

When it comes to teens, parents often regard social media as an initially invited, but now out-of-control houseguest that needs to get out! Firing off hundreds (and in some extreme cases, close to a thousand) of texts daily, obsessive FB posting  and tweeting, narcissistic levels of snapping and posting selfies on Instagram…it gets to be more than we want to handle or think is healthy, especially when it interferes with legitimate priorities like family time and academics. Many media gurus and even some parenting experts advise us to accept this insistent intruder into our lives and resign ourselves to its permanent presence. But that doesn’t mean we can or should just let our kids loose without our guidance and involvement. So how do we tame the social media beast and make sure it’s their servant and not their master? Here are some ideas:

Tip #1: Set the proper stage for online and mobile phone use early rather than later. I have found that however I train my sons to think about social media use before buying a device, is how they tend to continue to think about it after the purchase is made. Establish early on that social media use—of any kind—is always a privilege, not a right. Although tempting, don’t give phones and other mobile devices as gifts. A gift-giving scenario sets up a “this is mine, you’ve given it to me, and I can use it as I please” dynamic that’s hard to reign in when adjustments need to be made. Instead, purchase them together as equipment and communicate clearly the reason for the purchase. The goal might be a safe way to communicate, or it might be to help them do school work more efficiently and effectively. You will know best how to position the purchase based on your needs.

Tip #2: Establish and insist on accountability. Realistically, the only way this is likely to work is if we make it clear that use of social media is contingent upon following certain guidelines, and that their privilege to use it can be modified, altered, or withdrawn at any time if they don’t follow the guidelines. This is where a lot of parents lose ground and credibility with their teens. Teenagers can smell indecision a country mile away, and they will capitalize on it. After encountering too many instances in which my 17-year old was using social media inappropriately, I had to start at ground zero and be firm, clear, and consistent. He now knows that the only way he is even permitted to use social media at all is if he agrees to abide by the guidelines.

Two essential components of effective accountability are: 1) active in-person monitoring; and 2) consequences. Let your teenager know that you absolutely will conduct random, unannounced checks of his phone. And then do it. If you say it, but don’t do it, he’ll think you’re not serious. Remember: if it’s not inspected, it won’t be respected. You might think that if a kid knows you will check his phone, he will automatically eliminate any incriminating evidence and you will never discover what’s really going on. In some cases this might be true, but trust me, the law of averages will catch up to him and you will find out sooner or later what he’s doing.

Guidelines should be communicated in a way that’s easy to understand when a consequence will be triggered. General terms like “tweeting bad stuff” should be replaced with “No profanity in tweets.”, or “No sexual references in tweets.” Similarly, consequences should be unambiguous and enacted swiftly. Don’t expect or ask for permission to institute the guidelines or consequences. Simply communicate them, make sure they understand them, and require their adherence to them.

Tip #3: Reinforce your guidelines with thoughtful conversations about why you’re going to the trouble of being so involved in their social media activity. While you shouldn’t feel the need to apologize, a good dialogue will put your actions in context and provide a framework of love and support that can lessen your teen’s anxiety about the accountability. Let your son know  that you desire to support him in establishing a workable, effective social system. one in which he can learn to act responsibly, know how to protect themselves against harmful people and situations, and can maximize their media and social enjoyment. Rather than seeing you as a nosy, overbearing meddler, you can be seen as a caring, empowering parent who is part of their support network.

Tip #4: Actively help them develop solid communication skills. Any teen active on social media should be taught: 1) how to let someone know they’re offended; 2) how to apologize when they’ve offended someone; 3) how to determine their personal boundaries and withdraw if those boundaries are violated; 4) the limitations of electronic “conversations”; and 4) the differences in how males and females communicate with one another. So manyof the negative things that happen on social media are a result of poor communication leading to misunderstandings, inaccurate perceptions, and hurt feelings. If our teens know how to navigate online interactions more effectively, they can avoid many unfortunate situations. Don’t rely on mainstream media to either teach or reinforce these skills to your teen. It’s on you, and there are resources available to help.

For some reason I don’t quite understand, parents have begun to feel that they are required to allow their children, especially teens, unfettered and unrestricted access to social media. Reject this mindset. You—not your teen’s friends’ parents, not your parents, and certainly not Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey—are responsible for your child’s upbringing and development. Don’t be afraid to lovingly, but firmly, guide your youngster through these challenging years.

Chandra is a freelance writer who lives with her two sons in Virginia. She is a columnist and writer for Urban Faith online magazine, and is also a member of the writing team at Managing Your Blessings. Her work has also appeared on Hope for the Weary Mom website and in American Feminist magazine. She is passionate about prayer and founder of Hearts Like Water, an outreach to support moms as they pray for their children. And she loves, loves, LOVES her sons. You can connect with her on Twitter.

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