What your tween wishes you knew about social media

If we want our tweens to adopt better habits online and in real life, we have to change how we talk about the social world.

 Most tweens have more positive experiences with social media than negative.

If you’re a parent of a tween, odds are that your child has a number of social media accounts they’re logged into and using right now.

While some parents may be concerned over their child’s social media usage, the truth is: If we want teens and tweens to adopt better habits and healthier choices online and in real life, we have to change how we talk about the social world, both online and in real life! In the end, promoting social media wellness is all about developing awareness and encouraging open communication, because teens who perceive that their parents are unaware are less likely to seek their parents’ guidance and support in times of need – and that’s not a secret we want them to keep.

We spill the beans on the secrets tweens wish their parents knew about their online use, but won’t tell us!

Secret – No 1: “We can’t help it: We suffer from FOMO!

Access to smartphones has shifted communication for teens, and self-regulation can be difficult. The fear of missing out (FOMO) can create an overwhelming desire to be connected – in fact, according to 2015 Pew Research, 94% of teens go online daily, which isn’t surprising, and 24% of teens feel as though they are online constantly. Encouraging kids to find effective ways to self-regulate is sometimes about getting their buy-in – that is, encouraging them to reflect on the impact their daily online habits are having on their personal, academic, physical, and extracurricular goals.

Secret – No 2: “Many of us have a fake Insta account”

Even if your child is honest about eating the last chocolate in the pantry, they might still be hiding some of their online activities from you. If kids are online, parents are usually more effective in acting as mentors than as micromanagers. Having open-ended conversations rather than wielding authoritative control enables kids to build the critical thinking skills needed to make smarter decisions online and in real life.

For some kids, a ‘finsta’ (‘fake’ Instagram) or a ‘rinsta’ (‘real’ Instagram) might be where they feel they can share their raw, authentic feelings, even though they don’t always realise that anything shared online has the potential for a greater audience, amplified consequences or longer shelf-life. It’s up to parents to find a way in, not through coercion, but through conversation.

Secret – No 3: “If we are passionate or angry about something, we take it to social media”

Young people want their opinions to be heard. Many tweens and teens find their online communities are engaging, interactive, and responsive. A message or Snapchat sent to a friend can result in an instant reply, and something posted to a group chat or online profile can create the opportunity for community-level conversation and engagement. Responses from friends and followers make kids feel heard and listened to, which is often critically important for those who simply want acknowledgment and validation (this isn’t, of course, much different for adults).

At the same time, we know that teens’ and tweens’ brains are still developing and that kids often lack impulse control and the ability to understand the long-term consequences of decisions made in moments of anger and frustration.

Golden nugget: Parents who empathise with the challenges their children face can help them devise smarter, healthier ways to self-filter before posting.

Encouraging open communication

Promoting social media wellness is all about developing awareness and encouraging open communication. Here are several things children would like their parents to do:

“Talk with us about the apps we like to use and why. Most of you have no idea about our world”

Some parents use family tracking apps to monitor their children. However, many apps offering geolocation features open a new level of potential pressure (and danger) for your child. Because they broadcast your teen’s physical location, they open up the possibility of meeting strangers face to face or enabling someone to follow your teen without their knowledge. Also, these apps don’t work if the phone is turned off or out of battery, preventing you from tracking your kid, if that’s your goal.

Golden nugget: Ask your kids which apps they spend the most time on (or check their phone’s data usage). Download those apps and spend time learning the ins and outs.

“Help us keep an eye on who is following us”

Even when kids keep social media accounts private or provide restricted access, anyone can request to follow or friend them and potentially have full access to their postings.

In a world where likes, loves, comments, and follower counts have become a barometer for popularity, teens might find it difficult to turn away potential followers, even when they should. Parents and educators should encourage teens and tweens to curate access to their accounts.

“Accept that there are lots of good things on social media – it is not all bad stuff”

Social media isn’t good or bad – it is a new form of communication and language that adults need to learn, because pretending it doesn’t exist generally isn’t a wise approach.

When adults express genuine curiosity and compassion about the positive experiences associated with online interactions, kids are more likely to confide in them about the intertwining nature of their online and in-real-life experiences.

Positive, supportive online communities can make a world of difference to kids who have moved to a new area, or who don’t feel particularly connected to their school community, or who aren’t able to attend school because of illness.

“Talk with us about sexting and healthy relationships in a way that isn’t awkward”

Tweens and teens who are socialising and navigating relationships online and in real life face challenges unheard of in previous generations.

Some might mistakenly confuse the sending of explicit photos and messages with a level of intimacy that might not exist, and others might not fully understand the long-term social, emotional, and legal consequences of sending, sharing, and storing explicit photos (parents, check your local laws).

It’s important to keep communication open with your tween and teen, and talk to them about sexting and healthy relationships in a way that isn’t awkward for either of you.