Social media has become an integral part of our everyday lives. Parents use it, just like their children. However, on average, teenagers are the ones who spend the most time on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and similar platforms. These platforms confuse and frighten parents!

Do you know what social media platforms your teen is using?

According to the report, Common Sense Media, teens spend about 9 hours on entertainment media, including social media, games, and TV, every day. 

This means that teenagers spent more time with media and technology than with parents, school work, or physical activities. 

Parents probably ask themselves: “Will my child become addicted to video games? Will this ruin their ability to think for themselves? What happens if my child is cyberbullied or becomes one? Could an online predator harm my child? Will continual screen use diminish their ability to know how to socialize normally?”

As a Child and Family Therapist, I believe parents are right to ask these questions. The issue is how to get to the answers!

Our current world makes getting answers challenging. Before the pandemic, many parents banned social media, screen use, and cell phone ownership from children, including their teenagers. After the pandemic, many children were isolated from peers without any possible way to connect. Parents had no choice but to let their children go online to stem the growing anxiety and depression their children were experiencing from the isolation. During the pandemic, children were doing school online, but many parents discovered they were “multitasking” and playing games online or talking to friends via social media while participating in school. Being online, for school or social connection, is now a regular part of our lives. It isn’t going away anytime soon.

Why are we concerned? Studies show that social media and online video games reduce our effectiveness in understanding human emotion and create a barrier to communicating deeply. There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. The more teens spend online, the more shallow their communication and empathy skills could be. The teen years is a crucial time for skills that will sustain them in adulthood and the right mix requires real face-to-face interaction along with screen time.

Mirror neurons underlie emotional empathy

Our brains use “mirror neurons” to understand others’ perspectives and emotions through an inner imitation of other people’s actions. These special neurons reproduce emotions and actions in ourselves. This can be outside of our awareness and contributes to “gut reactions” and inform us on knowing right from wrong. It is the key to developing empathy and compassion as our neurons mirror the pain witnessed in other people. When they feel it we feel it too.

Perhaps this is why cyberbullying has become such a problem with preteens and teenagers? Maybe they cannot feel the pain and suffering of the peers they are tormenting. Without that feedback loop, they lose the natural conscience we need in social situations. Mirror neurons are also a prime component of learning, and this might account for the massive drop in school grades and homework performance. There is more to learning than facts and information. The joy of learning and the social connections that physical schools provide are a necessary part of a teens social emotional growth.

Of course, not all teens are engaged in cyberbullying or looking at inappropriate content. Many really just want to have fun and connect with peers. Teens can learn valuable things online. Additionally, many teens have found groups that support and encourage them through unique challenges in life situations, like mental health or artistic/cultural pursuits. This can’t always be found in our local community. Balance is needed and parents may need to help teens find the good and minimize the bad.

Here are some tips to help you learn more about your teen’s social media interactions and help them if necessary:

Give yourself permission, as the parent, to ask your child about concerns they have or problems they have experienced. Maybe your teen never tells you anything because you never ask, or perhaps you ask in an anxious and condemning way. Don’t assume wrongdoing but don’t be in denial either. 

If your teen gives you some pushback, don’t get offended when asked about social media use. These are normal human defenses. Just reassure them that you don’t believe they are doing something wrong but that you are curious and want to know more about social media and how it all works. Be curious and open-minded.

Get on social media yourself and learn how it works. Don’t depend on your teen to tell you everything or tell the right things. You can discover it yourself. I recommend parents friend or link to your child on various social media platforms – even though if they might think it weird. If they know you are online too and can see their content, they might think twice before posting something inappropriate. Sometimes being POTS (parent over the shoulder) has its benefits.

Parenting teens on social media might feel like the old adage: “If you can’t beat them, join them,” and that is exactly what this is…You can’t beat them, so you better join them in the online world!

If you have concerns about what your child is doing or they actively resist you finding out what they are posting or doing or who their friends are, that could be a red flag to pay attention to. Don’t go all “hair on fire” on them. Just note your concern and firmly investigate further. Don’t let a their resistance deter you. Ask questions of them, their friends, their friend’s parents, and look at their media on their devices when they sit them down. Yeah, they will get annoyed. They will live. 

I tell parents, who have real concerns about their children’s social media use, insist on having all passwords, account names and even stalk them online! Sounds harsh? It is better to have an irritated teen than an exploited one or one in deep trouble with the school or law. Even the most innocent child can get caught up in things way beyond their developmental capacity to deal with…I have seen it happen many times over. Many teens have hidden accounts, back up phone in case you take theirs, borrow their friends phone, etc.

You can take a social media fast for the entire family

You are allowed to remove all devices if needed. They may have been gifts to your child, but that gift was intended to be used correctly and safely. As a side note, many teens who lose their devices start finding more outside entertainment or real world social interactions to engage in…they frequently come out of their rooms and talk to parents. Wow, so strange, but true.

Because of this fact, take a “social media fast” for the whole family from time to time. Ban all social media and screen use for a day or a weekend. Provide lots of fun alternatives and food. Food is always helpful! Once you get past the grumbling, the home atmosphere might become more positive. 

Don’t focus so much on controlling the child as managing the media. Shaming and condemning don’t get positive results, and children can seek revenge. Be respectful but firm, loving but insistent. Tell them you are removing the devices because THEY are causing too many problems or distractions. You just want to help the ENTIRE family find a better focus and social interaction, not just the teenager, right?

Make discussions about the world and its problem a regular thing. Teenagers want and need support, and they don’t have adult wisdom and experience to manage life’s difficulties. You have to open the space to have these conversations. It may be awkward at first, but making them a normal car-ride conversation or over an after-school snack can open your child up to share their fears, anxiety, and needs. 

Parents of teens cannot effectively use control to manage them. You have to use influence if you want to have a lasting effect. Your goal for this developmental stage is to train them for adulthood. It’s only a few years away. If you tell them what to do all the time versus helping them with the best solution and sometimes experience the negative consequences of life, they won’t be ready. 

Parenting a teen is like when your child learned to walk. You couldn’t catch them every time but had to let them stumble and fall on occasions. You protected them against any serious threats (sharp objects, going into the street), but you cautiously walked alongside, encouraging and cheering on their successful steps until walking was natural. You can do this for social media and screen use too. Walk alongside them. Protect but don’t smother them. Steer them in the right direction and remove them from obvious dangerous situations. Bring a balance of off-screen activities to the family. And in the end, they will protect themselves, and be better human beings.

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