Teaching Kids to Be Smart About Social Media
Most teens and many preteens use some form of social media and have a profile on a social networking site. Many visit these sites every day.
There are plenty of good things about social media — but also many risks and things kids and teens should avoid. They don’t always make good choices when they post something to a site, and this can lead to problems.
To help them find the balance, it’s important to talk with your kids about how to use social media wisely.
What’s Positive About Social Media Use?
Social media can help kids:
- stay connected with friends and family
- interact with a more diverse group of kids than they may be used to
- volunteer or get involved with a campaign, nonprofit, or charity
- enhance their creativity by sharing ideas, music, and art
- meet other people who have similar interests
- communicate with educators and fellow students
- find health information
- learn about current events
- get support when they feel sad or anxious
What Are the Downsides of Social Media Use?
The flipside is that social media can be a hub for potentially harmful or questionable activities.
Through cyberbullying, kids can be teased or harassed online. In fact, cyberbullying is considered the most common online risk for teens, and is linked to depression, loneliness, and even suicide in both the victims and the bullies.
Privacy & Safety
Kids also should know about privacy and safety. Without meaning to, they can share more online than they should. Many kids post photos of themselves online or use their real names on their profiles. They also might reveal their birthdates and interests, or post their school name and the town where they live.
Sharing this type of information can make them easy targets for online predators and others who might mean them harm. In fact, many kids say they have been contacted online by someone they didn’t know in a way that made them feel scared or uncomfortable.
There’s also the risk of a physical encounter with the wrong person. Some apps can automatically reveal a user’s location, telling anyone exactly where to find the person.
Risks to Their Reputation
Photos, videos, and comments made online usually can’t be taken back after they’re sent or posted. Even when a kid thinks something has been deleted, it can be impossible to completely erase it from the Internet. Posting an inappropriate photo can damage a reputation and cause problems years later — such as when a potential employer or college admissions officer does a background check.
Studies show that spending a lot of time on social media can be related to mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety. It’s not just how much time kids spend on social media, but also how they use it that matters. For example, seeing how many “friends” others have or looking at pictures of them having fun can make kids feel left out, bad about themselves, or like they don’t measure up to their peers. Also, kids who lurk passively in the background of a chat are often unhappier than those who actively post and send messages to friends.
Experts are studying the relationship between social media and mental health conditions. It’s not clear whether unhealthy social media use leads to mental health problems, or whether people with mental health problems tend to use social media too much or in unhealthy ways.
Inappropriate or Harmful Content
Kids may see online content or ads that aren’t appropriate for their age. This is especially true for kids who lie about their age to get access to certain social media sites. They may also see risky or dangerous content that can include violence, self-harm, eating disorders, or discrimination toward some groups of people. There’s a lot of false and inaccurate information online that can mislead kids, with potentially harmful consequences.
Kids sometimes spend so much time on social media that they don’t have enough hours in the day to do homework, read, exercise, sleep, spend time with loved ones, or enjoy the outdoors. “Problematic social media use” refers to use that affects how kids function or do routine tasks, or that interferes with their relationships.
What Can Parents Do?
It’s important to be aware of what your kids do online. But snooping can alienate them and damage the trust you’ve built together. The key is to stay involved in a way that makes your kids understand that you respect their privacy but want to make sure they’re safe.
Tell your kids that it’s important to:
- Be nice. Mean behavior is not OK. Make it clear that you expect your kids to treat others with respect, and to never post hurtful or embarrassing messages. And ask them to always tell you about any harassing or bullying messages that others post.
- Think twice before hitting “enter.” Remind kids that what they post can be used against them. For example, letting the world know that you’re on vacation or posting your home address gives would-be robbers a chance to strike. Kids also should avoid posting specific locations of parties or events, as well as phone numbers.
- Follow the “WWGS?” (What Would Grandma Say?) rule. Teach kids not to share anything on social media that they wouldn’t want their teachers, college admissions officers, future bosses — and yes, grandma — to see.
- Use privacy settings. Privacy settings are important. Go through them together to make sure your kids understand each one. Also, explain that passwords are there to protect them against things like identity theft. They should never share them with anyone, even a boyfriend, girlfriend, or best friend.
- Don’t “friend” strangers. “If you don’t know them, don’t friend them.” This is a plain, simple — and safe — rule of thumb. Let them know that kids who follow friends are generally happier than those who follow strangers.
Make a Household Plan for Social Media Use
Consider using the AAP’s family media plan tool, which lets parents set household rules around social media use. How kids use social media and what they see there can be more important than how many hours a day they spend on it. Set rules you all can agree on — for example, you might keep computers and devices in public areas in the house and turn them off before bedtime and during meals. Post the rules in a visible area (like on the refrigerator) so that everyone knows about them.
Different children use social media in different ways. Their experiences will differ based on things like their maturity level, mental health, and personality. Keep this in mind as you create your family’s plan and adapt it to your individual kids.
If cyberbullying, harassment, or other problems happen, you or your child can report it to school staff, the social media platform, or local law enforcement. If you’re worried about your child’s mental health, talk to their doctor.
Know how your kids use social media and encourage them to focus on its positive effects. And don’t forget: Setting a good example through your own virtual behavior can go a long way toward helping your kids use social media safely.
“Teaching Kids to Be Smart About Social Media (for Parents)” Nemours KidsHealth, kidshealth.org/en/parents/social-media-smarts.html. Accessed 19 Sept. 2023.