Helping your teen or tween with social media

To follow or not to follow… that is the question.

family communication around education, social media and digital citizenshipOh Hamlet, you would be so perplexed on this one!

I’m sometimes asked this question as the mother of an Instagram-using 12 year old myself. Parents of young adults often are conflicted about making this choice – at least, if your child is connected to social media – and likely, he or she is.

If your child does interact with others on social media platforms, how should you guide, monitor and support their presence on social media?

Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, Twitter, and a host of other apps are all being used by children starting around the age of 11. Despite the fact that it is illegal for a child under the age of 13 to use Instagram or Facebook due to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a 2012 study reported that 45% of online 12-year-olds had at least one active social media account.

helping your teen or tween have a life on social media

Just the facts, ma’am

According to the 2015 study by Common Sense Research, American teens consume an average of 9 hours of media daily. That doesn’t include contact time during school or for homework. Holy smokes!

Tweens (ages 8 to 12) use an average of about 6 hours of entertainment media per day. Of those hours, a good portion is spent on social networks, especially if you are a girl. Teen girls spend an average of 1:32 hours on social media daily. Boys use social media, but they are likely to spend more time on video games and computer games.

And are parents monitoring their tween or teen’s behavior on social networks?

Only 54% of tweens (defined as 8 to 12 year olds) report that their parents know “a lot” about their usage and presence on social media. That means that 46% of parents don’t know “a lot”. Similarly, only 32% of teens (defined as 13 to 18 year olds) know “a lot” about their lives on social media. The same study revealed that 30% of teens stated that their parents know “only a little” or “nothing” about their social media usage. That’s scary.

While it’s encouraging that some parents are aware of their child’s habits on social media, clearly most parents are not well aware. I fear being one of them.

And here’s a fascinating statistic that came out of the study, which also gathered data that disaggregated by income level (high, middle, low) and education level of parents. The teens in high income families reported that only 28% of their parents know “a lot” about their lives on social media; that’s compared to 38% of teens from low income families who self-report about the same data.

When it comes to parental awareness, young people who have more highly educated and higher-income parents are consistently less likely than other youth to report that their parents know “a lot” about the media they use.

The Real World

I still consider the research finding puzzling. Are high income parents less likely to be on social networking sites themselves? I wish I understood, but let’s look at some data I know well:

My son is 12; he’s your typical sixth grader. He likes sports, music, computer games, stupid videos, and connecting with friends – mostly around sports, music, computer games and stupid videos. He also likes his privacy.

how to help your teen or tween have a life on social mediaAs he gets older, he pushes for a more private and less regulated world. A perpetual battle in our home is whether he is allowed to lock his bedroom or consume media in private settings. We are constantly knocking on that door, opening it, and asking to keep usage open and public. Additionally, our policy is that you cannot create an account or a profile on a social media platform without a parent’s permission. Has that policy ever been broken? Heck, yes! And with that came broken trust and a host of other consequences as would happen if your child broke any family rule.

Even so, at 12.5 years of age, he has an Instagram account. As his parents, we are allowed to look at his account whenever we like. We ask questions about posts and friends. Once I was looking at his followers and asking about their identities, and he reported a few that he didn’t know. “Get rid of them”, I said.

And do I think I should follow him on Instagram? To be decisive, yes.

4 Tips for Helping Your Teen or Tween Have a Life on Social Media

  1. Have “Tech Talks”: Janell Burley Hofmann, author of iRules, encourages families to have regular tech talks – deliberate conversations between children and parents around their media usage. During these times, parents and children discuss usage, define expectations, and revisit and reflect on behaviors.
  1. Friend or Follow Them: Even though every family has their own rules, it’s a good idea for parents (especially of younger children) to have access to their kids’ pages and posts. Parents can monitor the content and perhaps help their child avoid making bad decisions on social networking sites.
  1. Don’t Creep Out: A general boundary to draw is that parents may not post or comment on their child’s social media. You may view that connected virtual world, but you may not engage with your child and his or her friends. It’s their world. Of course, you may have private conversations and follow up in other ways. Hoffman identifies that parents can be “creepers”. Parent creepers doesn’t just monitor their own children, they monitor everyone’s. Generally, they scroll social media to be up on the gossip and business of teens. Sometimes, in the effort of helping or advising children, they can get involved in conversation threads. Don’t do it. It can damage your relationship with your child, cause them to lose trust, and blur the lines of parent and peer roles in communication.
  1. Use Privacy Settings: Privacy settings aren’t foolproof, but they can be helpful. Teach your children to use their settings to control information as being private and not public. For some parents, this is a good lesson for themselves.


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