Learn the basics and build confidence using devices and technology.
Get your kid -- and yourself -- ready for the next step with these conversation starters.
After months of asking, you took the plunge, and now your kid has a phone. Inevitably, soon after the smartphone comes social media (insert parental scream). For most parents, social media feels scary when they think about their kids using it. Why is it such a potential pit of despair for parents?
First, we know from our own social media that the experience isn't always great. How are kids supposed to deal with insensitive posts, sketchy people, privacy problems, and even FOMO -- when supposedly mature grown-ups can't even be trusted to behave appropriately? And, though most social media has a minimum age of 13, a lot of kids start asking for it before they're technically allowed to join.
Of course we're worried. But the truth is, lots of teens use social media and stay safe, healthy, and connected -- especially when parents are supportive. And if we set our teens up for success, keep lines of communication open, and stay aware of our teen's social media world, any trouble they run into will likely be speed bumps instead of roadblocks.
So, how do we do that? Talking -- and listening -- is key. Yes, it can be hard to get kids to open up, but it's possible to get more information about what they want to use, why they want to use it, and how much they know about potential risks without seeming intrusive. And it's important, too, not just for their social lives but for the future. The world runs on social media. And kids need to learn how to use it safely, responsibly, and respectfully. Today it might be Snapchat, but tomorrow they may be looking for a job on LinkedIn or sharing a professional portfolio on their website.
Below are some ideas for how to kick things off; it's best to find some downtime when you're not pulling your kid away from something they love. If you need buy-in, frame it like a driving test: They need to know the rules of the road before they can get in the car. They might know much more than you think, so make sure to let them show their expertise when possible. You can go through the script as-is or use it as a jumping-off point -- whatever works!
Ask your teen: What app(s) do you want to use and why?
Follow-up: Is there anything in that app that isn't awesome? Anything you think I'd be worried about?
When teens are saying they want to use social media to stay connected to friends, that's a good sign. If their answer is more along the lines of trying to get famous or "showing off" in some way, it's more problematic -- and could lead to risky behavior in their search for online fame. Also, it matters which platforms your kid wants to use, since each one comes with its own sets of features and challenges. MeetMe and Yubo, for example, come with more potential risks than say, Twitter and Instagram, which aren't designed to meet strangers and use algorithms and settings to help filter out abusive comments.
Ask your teen: What kinds of communication don't belong on social media?
Follow-up: What if your friend posts a sexy picture or video? Would it be hard to not do it, too? If she got positive comments, how would that feel?
Follow-up: So, in general, what do you think are good things to keep in mind before you post something?
Takeaways: It's good for teens to think about why they want to post something, who they're posting it for, and what expectations they might have about the reactions they'll get. It's normal for teens to seek out attention and explore their sexuality, but doing it on social media is risky. Thinking about consequences isn't a teen's strongest skill because of brain development, but if they can pause for a few seconds to think about why they're posting something and what the impact might be, it might help prevent problems. They'll still make mistakes, but a little mindfulness goes a long way.
Ask your teen: Do you know what to do if someone is mean, harasses you for pictures, stalks you, or does anything else that feels sketchy?
Follow-up: Can you walk me through the way your favorite app works and what the settings are?
Takeaways: You and your teen need to understand the app they're using in terms of who can see their posts, who can friend/contact them, and how to use the settings to be as safe as possible. This is a good time to download their favorite app, have your kid walk you through how to use it, and take a look at the settings together.
Ask your teen: What might bum you out about social media, and what can you do about it?
Follow-up: What do you think we should do if one or both of us notice that being on social media is starting to make you anxious or depressed, or take up too much time?
Follow-up: What should our limits be around how much and how often you're using social media?
Takeaways: It's helpful to set expectations before downloading the app and turning your kid loose. When is it time to stop? Are there places and times when the phone is off-limits? What are the consequences when your kid doesn't abide by the expectations? Setting these up together gets you more buy-in and less arguing when they make inevitable mistakes. It's also important to talk about the up and downsides of social media and how it sometimes can make people feel pressured or less-than. How much a person uses social media seems to be a factor when it comes to how someone feels, so discussing that up front sets the stage for future conversations if and when your teen isn't having fun anymore. Finally, being a good role model is key, especially because your teen won't listen to you if you aren't walking the walk. If you're struggling with your own use of social media, be open about it and work as a team to find balance.
Ask your teen: The deal is that I am going to do random spot-checks of your phone, and I'll need your social media usernames and passwords. My goal is not to spy on you or keep track of everything you do -- just to stay involved. Think you can handle that?
Takeaways: There's some evidence that trying to track everything your kid does backfires: Kids create secret accounts and stop talking openly about what's happening because they feel spied on. To avoid this, it's important to frame your checks as a form of training wheels; you're doing it to support them, not call them out. Of course, if they break a rule you've set, consequences are appropriate, but in general, it works best to use each mistake as a teachable moment. Remember, too, that kids sometimes do have multiple accounts (especially on Instagram) and that there's not always a feed to check (like on Snapchat), so sitting down and asking to see what's happening -- instead of checking solo -- might also open up some conversations.
Ask your teen: Will you please share some fun stuff with me so I don't feel so old and we can have fun together?
Takeaways: Many of these apps have cool features you can share and conversation-sparking content that offers something that's not always easy to find: connection with your teen. Meet them where they are, have ongoing conversations, stay involved, and have fun when