CNN just aired a special report called #Being13 about teens' use of social media. I sat on the couch with my husband and watched with equal parts fascination and fear while Anderson Cooper laid it out:
- Teens sometimes check their social media accounts 200 times a day.
- They’d rather be confined to the house than give up their phones.
- Their time online is spent bouncing between affirmation via Likes and anxiety over FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).
I picked up some new terms as well: “Social Aggression” (behavior that’s intended to hurt someone else’s friendships or social status), and the alarmingly named “Social Combat” (a particular type of bullying where kids engage social rivals to increase their own popularity).
"This is an age group that has a lot of anxiety about how they fit in, how they rank, and what their peer-status is. There is fear in putting yourself out there on social media and they hope for lots of likes and comments and affirmations but there is always the chance that someone could say something mean,"
After all the potentially worrying results of CNN’s report, here’s the quote that should make us all breathe a little easier:
"Parent monitoring effectively erased the negative effects of [teens’] online conflicts."
This conclusion—that just monitoring your kid’s social media interactions is enough to erase any downside—feels almost too easy. You don’t have to cut your children off from the world or take away their devices. You just need to be there for them when something bad happens or they get in over their heads.
Tips For Monitoring Kids' Social Media
Every family has to figure out what will work for them—so here are some practical suggestions for taking the #Being13 experts’ advice and getting a window into your kid’s social media world:
Friend and follow your kids
This is what Faris and Underwood suggest specifically, and it’s a good first step. It’s easy and relatively pain-free for both your kids and you. You still have to invest a bit of time actually looking at your kids’ social media feeds, and there are limitations: You won’t see any private, direct messages within Facebook or Instagram; You can’t follow them on ephemeral platforms like Snapchat because messages disappear as soon as they’re read; and teens have been known to create a second FB account where they do their real posting, while their primary account remains squeaky clean and family-friendly.
Grab a seat on the couch next to your kid, while they scroll through their Instagram feed
It’s far easier to do this if you make a habit of it early on, like when you first give your child a phone. The insight you get from this kind of open monitoring is valuable. You have the potential to see everything from your teen’s group texts to the disappearing Snapchats they receive. Your teen can also give you context about anything that seems questionable or concerning. I’ll admit, this is a really hard suggestion to put into action if your kid has already been on social media for a while—but the benefits are real if you can find a way to make it happen.
Turn older siblings into online protectors
Not all kids will have the sort of sibling relationship that makes this possible, but if the dynamic exists in your family definitely take advantage of it. (I’ve also seen this work effectively with a trusted babysitter as online-guardian.) Sit down with both the older and younger sibs and lay out some ground-rules for monitoring. (My number one rule? Keep sibling rivalry strictly offline—no posting rude comments on your sister’s Instagram!) Offer the older sib some guidelines so he or she can make the call about what needs Mom’s or Dad’s attention. Benefit to this approach: older kids spend half their lives online anyway, so you might as well get something out of it.
Don’t forget about all those other places teens can get into hot water online
The most disturbing incident one of my own kids faced online had nothing to do with Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. It was an in-game chat on, of all things, Minecraft. My then thirteen-year-old daughter was home from school with a cold, playing Minecraft to pass the time. She encountered someone in the game and joined forces with them to defeat some zombie pigmen. When my daughter was ready to sign off, this online acquaintance asked for her Instagram handle so they could arrange to play again another time. Luckily, my daughter declined. She told me later that her first instinct was to give out the information, because after all it wasn’t her real name or her address. She didn’t think her Instagram handle counted as ‘personal information.’ Don’t wait until something like this happens to talk to your kids about all the information they should be protecting.
Designate a non-parent your teen can talk to
Sometimes teens come up against a situation that feels too painful (or embarrassing) to discuss with their parents. Before this happens, have a heart to heart with your kid about who else in their life might provide a non-judgmental listening ear. A favorite long-distance aunt or older, wiser cousin can offer advice and be a sounding board. And they can also let you know if the situation feels serious enough to warrant a more active intervention.
One last thing
The most important—and validating—takeaway I got from watching #Being13 was that just taking an interest in my kids’ social media lives was likely to have some protective effect. There aren't many things in life that offer you a reward for just showing up. You have to celebrate those things when they come along.