The internet is a powerful tool for learning and engaging with the world – but just like any powerful tool, it can also be risky, especially for kids and teens still learning the ropes. And given that 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, keeping them safe is an urgent issue. So how can parents monitor their child’s online activities without intruding in their personal space? We talked to some teens – and some experts – to find out.
Navigating an online world: social media tips for parents
"I don't think a lot of parents understand how much value kids put on social media and how it can affect them," says Chloe, 16. "Sometimes parents just kind of push it off, like, 'That's stupid. Get over it.'"
Jace, 14, agrees. "As teenagers we're already self-conscious, so that stuff makes it hard to talk about with your parents. Because it's like, 'Yeah, okay, it's dumb, but I care about it.'"
Both Jace and Chloe actually want to talk to their parents about it. That might be surprising, given the eye-rolls many parents might expect. But it's a big part of their lives, and they want their parents involved. To monitor and set limits, yes, but even more, to support and approve.
"I mean, they shouldn't be helicopter parents about it," Chloe says. "But more just like talking about it and helping us figure it out, so you don't get sucked too much into that world."
One good way to start, says Children’s Hospital Colorado adolescent medicine specialist Amy Sass, MD, is with curiosity about what your child is up to.
“It’s an opportunity to let your kid be the expert, because most likely they are,” she says. “Never used TikTok or Snapchat? Have your kid show you how it works.”
Same goes for other forms of media. What’s your teen watching, listening to, playing? Watch, play or listen to it with them. Ask them about it. Let them tell you in their own words.
And of course, set limits.
“Have a discussion about which apps are acceptable,” says Dr. Sass. “Realistically, parents and guardians should be able to follow or friend their kids and just randomly check their phone to see who they’re talking to and what they’re talking about. Texts, messages, that kind of thing.”
For parents gauging how involved they might be, consider developmental age, which may or may not be the same as actual age. How much supervision do they need with other activities?
Setting limits around social media
Kids can get into trouble with social media when it becomes a replacement for real life. It's hard for teens to understand the bigger implications of their decisions. Even more important than setting limits is helping them understand those limits, so they can learn from them.
On parents’ part, the more open and honest they can be about the risks associated with internet use, the more prepared their child will be to manage difficult situations on and offline. Dr. Sass notes that it goes a long way for parents to be able to admit their own issues with media use.
One tool she particularly likes is the American Academy of Pediatrics' Family Media Plan, which helps parents set limits not just for kids, but for everyone in the family. In general, though, it’s a great idea to limit access to the internet or technology to spaces in the home and make some spaces in the home technology-free – like the dinner table or, in particular, bedrooms.
Social media and self-image
"Keeping up your popularity is hard," says Jace. "I'm not saying I'm super popular, but I feel bad for girls who are. It's stressful when you have so many people counting on you to be beautiful all the time and be that person they want you to be."
"I started comparing myself to other people," agrees Shirley, 19, who struggled with her self-image as a younger teen. "I saw my friends starting to change the way they looked, and because I was surrounded by that, I felt like I had to, too. You start to overthink every little thing you do."
Recent studies have shown that Instagram does in fact have serious negative effects on self-image, especially for young girls. According to one study – conducted by Facebook, which owns Instagram, and leaked by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen – 13.5% of teen girls surveyed said Instagram worsened thoughts of suicide. Another 17% said it made their eating disorders worse.
One way parents can potentially combat those effects is to foster an ongoing dialog that teaches kids about empathy.
“It really needs to be an ongoing dialog between parents and kids, engaging in these conversations around how they think about the images they see” says Dr. Sass. “It’s so important for a young person to be able to identify that the person who posted that photo probably took 70 photos before they posted that one.”
Plus, there’s filtering, photoshopping and even airbrushing, all of which further distort reality.
“So much of it is just fake,” Dr. Sass continues, “And so much stuff is deliberately marketed to them. The people they follow and admire, have them step back and see how they’re posting about certain sneakers or makeup brands. They’re getting paid.”
Social media and sleep: putting phones to bed
When kids (and adults) associate their beds with sleep and sleep only, research shows they get to sleep faster and sleep better. If possible, it’s best not to use bedrooms as hangout spaces and to keep screens and phones in other rooms.
One big reason screens and sleep don’t mix: light exposure. Part of the body’s process of going to sleep is producing a hormone called melatonin – and bright lights like screens suppress it. “Screens trick your brain into thinking it’s daytime, and if it’s daytime, your brain is not going to let you fall asleep,” says pediatric pulmonologist and sleep specialist Stephen Hawkins, MD.
Social media and bullying
One unfortunate reality of social media is that it opens the door to bullying that is in some ways closer to home than ever before. The best thing parents can do to help is to have a proactive plan. Prepare your child with the understanding that if someone online is making them uncomfortable, it is not OK. But the right response from you, as a parent, depends on the person doing the bullying.
“Start by doing a little parenting CSI,” says Dr. Sass.
Most often the bully is someone that your child knows personally, typically through school. If that is the case, it is important that you work with other parents or with the school to decide on an appropriate intervention. Schools are taking this kind of thing very seriously and normally welcome the involvement of parents.
It can be challenging if your child is being bullied online by someone that they don’t personally know, because it is not always easy to figure out who’s behind the bullying. In this situation it’s important that parents educate themselves about the policies and features of each website or platform. They often have rules in place to intervene when users engage in bullying behavior. In fact, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and Facebook all have safety guides for parents:
Parents can also help kids block bullies from contacting their child via social media by unfollowing or unfriending that person. In some instances, it could be appropriate to shut down the account.
The good news is, just talking about the bullying can sometimes lessen kids’ pain by making them feel less isolated. Of course, most kids will also be reluctant to disclose, so check in often and ask them about it, particularly if they’re showing any signs of being bullied, such as withdrawal from school or social activities, sudden avoidance of certain situations or hypervigilance.
It’s also important to talk to kids not just about how they expect to be treated on social media, but how they treat others. A good rule of thumb is never to say something online that you wouldn’t say in person. Foster empathy and teach kids to be kind and courteous whatever space they’re in. In fact, that’s a great rule for kids and adults: If you wouldn’t want your post on a billboard with your face on it, you probably shouldn’t post it anywhere online.
What about sexting?
Sexting, or sending sexually explicit messages or pictures via text messages or social media platforms, is all too common, and parents definitely need to talk to kids about it, says Dr. Sass. In fact, she thinks it should be a part of every parent’s standard internet safety talk.
“We do better when we have clear expectations: Every time you ride a bike wear a helmet. Every time you’re in a car wear your seatbelt. Never send naked pictures to anyone,” she says. “Nobody who cares about you should ever ask for inappropriate pictures online. If you care about yourself, you should never share them. Doesn’t matter if it’s a romantic partner or a best friend. Once that stuff is out there, it’s out there forever.”
As an illustration of the inappropriateness, Dr. Sass suggests posing a reverse scenario.
“What would you think if I took naked pictures of myself and sent them to dad? What if I accidently put in the wrong number and sent them to my boss? It’s really not OK for anyone.”
And if parents find out their teen has sexted, she says, they need to act immediately to find out who’s requesting the images, who they’ve been shared with and where. As with bullying, the right course of action really depends on the situation. But under no circumstances should parents ignore it or hope it will go away.
It is also critical that parents educate their kids about the dangers of establishing relationships with people that they meet online. Some kids do form genuine friendships through social media and gaming, but any real-life meeting that comes out of it should involve proper planning and supervision on the part of both kids’ parents or caregivers.
People on the internet aren’t always who they say they are. Parents should coach kids to never give out any personal info – like their last name, address or the name of their school – without checking with the parent first. Even photos they post include a location tag in many platforms, unless it’s turned off in their settings. Kids – and parents – need to be vigilant.
The right age for social media
Because in many ways access to social media is a trade for privacy, it’s best for kids not to have independent access before adolescence. There’s too much potential for their privacy to be compromised and for them to have negative experiences.
It’s also difficult for kids and teens to understand the permanence of their online actions. On the internet, there really is no such thing as “gone.” Once something is posted or communicated online, it likely continues to exist somewhere, even when deleted from its original location.
In terms of cognitive development, teens, and even young adults, often have difficulty grasping the long-term consequences of their behavior. They also tend to act impulsively. The short-term gain of forwarding something that they might find funny in the moment can lead to serious long-term problems. In some circumstances, simply passing along harmful or threatening information electronically can make a user just as responsible as the person originally posting it. If there is something that your child wouldn’t say or do offline, they shouldn’t do it online. It can, and usually does, stay with them forever.
Social media warning signs
Child psychologists at Children’s Colorado often find it interesting to see what happens when teens come into treatment, which is a tech-free zone. At first they’re concerned about how they’re going to handle it. But then they do fine. Whether they admit it or not, most of them appreciate the break — and many of them do admit it. They don't want to be left out, but at the same time, it's a lot to manage. Some of them have even asked their parents to restrict phone use just to have a reason to tell their friends they can't.
There’s a lot of potential for kids and teens to develop an unhealthy relationship with technology. One of the first and most troubling warning signs is when kids disengage from more typical social interaction in favor of spending more time "with technology."
Parents should be aware of the kinds of material their children are accessing online. When a child is routinely accessing inappropriate or concerning materials online, that’s a problem in itself, but it can also translate to similar real-world activities and behaviors with serious consequences.