You probably already know that social media is a fact of life for most teens. Like with anything else, there are enormous opportunities and major pitfalls to this. Teens benefit a lot from these sites. They allow teens to stay connected with family and friends that they wouldn’t otherwise, it’s an outlet for creativity and individuality, a place to express and experiment with ideas and bond with others over important causes that are personal to them. And what may be one of the most seductive aspects of social networking is the the amount of immediate feedback that comes from posts. This can be incredibly satisfying and beneficial to teens, that is until it becomes a problem.
Many of the teens we see experience significant anxiety, misinformation, bullying, incessant drama and an unending stream of information that is both appealing and unnerving.
A lot of teens can navigate this minefield well. They have balance in their lives, positive in-person relationships, and activities that are challenging and fulfilling. But many teens struggle. Because teens can be so private about what’s really going on in cyberspace it’s hard to know as a parent how concerned you should be.
Below are 5 questions to ask yourself to help you determine if you should be concerned. If you find yourself answering no to a majority of these, then it’s probably a good idea for you to get additional support.
1. Are they engaged in other activities? If it seems like their primary goal for after school activities is to make the varsity Facebook or Instagram team then there’s something wrong. Make sure your teen is participating in clubs, sports, volunteering or working. These are natural defenses against spending too much time on-line and provide opportunities to practice real life job and social skills.
2. Can they talk to you about what they’re doing on-line without getting defensive? You should be able to have casual and brief conversations with your teen about what they’re doing online. If your teen gets defensive or argumentative by you occasionally asking to look at their pages then you may have reason to be concerned. There’s a difference between a normal desire for privacy and a desperate attempt to conceal.
3. Are they comfortable going on sites in a public setting? If they’re minimizing their page every time you walk by or only social networking when they’re alone or in their room, this could be a sign that your teen is involved in a way that isn’t good for them or that their time online is causing them too much distress.
4. Do they have good three dimensional relationships with family and friends? Teens should have at least one or two good friends and one or two family members outside of parents that they spend time connecting with face to face on a regular basis. If they’re lacking these relationships and are instead spending a lot of time online, there’s a good chance that they’re struggling with social skills or social anxiety. In either of these cases, this issue needs to be addressed directly and urgently. Without intervention, these teens can get lost very quickly in the world of social media and the older they get, the harder it will be to pull them out of it.
5. Are they doing ok before, during and after? You’ll be able to tell a lot about how your teen’s doing with social media by paying attention to these three periods. Before: Does their anxiety skyrocket in anticipation of going online? Do they get demanding or dismissive? Do they blow off important things like family dinner, planned activities, or school work? During: Are they ignoring others around them, do they snip at attempts to interact while online? Do they seem secretive? After: Do they seem more irritable, stressed or disengaged during the period after they logged off?
Things are happening online at such breakneck speed that it’s impossible as a parent not to worry at least a little bit. The best tools you have at your disposal are your instincts and the relationship you build and maintain with your teen. Don’t stop talking with them about this stuff, be open minded and try to learn from them as well. Talk with other parents and other teens. Over time, you may be surprised to discover that, with reasonable boundaries and balance, social media can become a helpful tool that supports your teen’s development and family as a whole.