Social media is having a bigger impact than many parents realise on the behaviour of their teens. Recently in my work I have had a large increase in parents asking for help with their teenagers and issues that they are noticing but not sure how to parent. Unfortunately for parents today, we are in a position of learning as we go, with little hard data on how to manage social media in healthy way. This is one area that we can’t refer back to our own childhoods on how to manage as we didn’t have any of this technology. Much of our parenting is guided by drawing on our own experience as a child and what we know worked or didn’t work. As parents today we are forging new ground and it can be both hard work and very confusing.
Some of the issues we are seeing include a large rise in self-esteem issues, poor behaviour, anger, withdrawal, lack of respect and engaging in activities that are older than we would hope for an age group.
For us oldies that went to school before social media came about, we faced the challenges of a school day and then went home where no peers entered our reality again until the next school day. For kids today, they come home and if they have social media, half their year class virtually comes home with them. Often teens disappear to their bedrooms and take their device with them. For some kids, that is the last you see of them until a brief visit at meal time and then back they go to their friends and plenty of people who are simply acquaintances.
During these teens years, especially the early ones, our teens are forming their identity. They are working out who they are, their status, qualities, self-view and overall belief system of themselves. So this time is an incredibly important one and a time in which parents need to provide a safe space and guidance. If we have half the school coming into our home through online devices, we lose a lot of control and expose our kids to a greater risk of forming an inaccurate self-view. Peer pressure to be a particular person, behave a certain way, is now presented to them in the safety of their home. If this goes badly, home is no longer a safe space.
As parents, our role is to keep our kids safe, teach them and guide them. Sometimes social media is the direct enemy of this. As if parenting teens isn’t hard enough, throw in social media and you have a whole other challenge to work with. Add to this that our kids are usually way more educated around current technology (I often hand my phone to my kids to ‘fix’ if I am stuck) than we are. On top of that, peer group pressure means they ‘need’ this technology or they don’t fit in and any wonder parents are confused with how to parent.
I frequently see teens who are comparing themselves and their lives with their online friends. We are all aware that most of us post the ‘highlight reel’ of our lives on social media, but even knowing this, teens still take what they see on face value.
The first risk I see with social media is a distorted view of other people’s lives. Comparing themselves and their life to this then often leaves them feel like they are lacking or not good enough. It is often the first step to kids trying to be someone other than themselves.
The second risk I see is that anyone can put up just about anything online and it doesn’t need to have any truth to it at all. One of the best examples of this is young teens following Instagram models and admiring their body and lifestyle and aspiring to this. Unfortunately, whilst there are some genuine people online, there are also plenty of these models with eating disorders. I know of a group of teen girls who were obsessively watching a particular Instagram model and trying to diet and exercise as she was telling them she did to get her body. The problem was, this particular model was anorexic and had even admitted to fighting this illness (although not on her account). So we now had a group of teens whose idol and inspiration was a mentally ill woman who was creating an unhealthy image for them to aspire to. That’s really hard to parent against.
The third risk factor I see is the online bullying. As parents we are all aware that this exists but whether it is happening to your own child or not can sometimes be hard to determine. Bullying online can take all forms and a throw away negative comment by someone can be enough to make someone question their own identity or self-worth. Not being invited to social events and then seeing the evidence constantly stream online is a hard one for teens too.
The fourth risk I see is the push to grow up faster. Our teens are exposed to so much more than we may realise through social media. Group chats, videos, captions and pictures posted can contain plenty of inappropriate material that we wouldn’t otherwise allow our teens to see. In addition to this, kids are talking to each other in more inappropriate and disrespectful ways as it is easier when it isn’t in person, to lose sight of normal boundaries. The frequency of our young men asking our girls for ‘nudes’ and similarly, girls sending boys inappropriate photos of themselves. Many parents would be horrified to see the amount of this that goes on in some teen circles. Our kids still don’t understand that what they send or forward can not only land them in legal trouble but may stick with them for life. Many parents don’t think this is happening in their area. It is. You just haven’t seen it.
The fifth and final risk is the amount of use these devices get and the health and mental health ramifications. Not only are things like eye sight affected, but mental health, depression, anger, self-esteem and withdrawal from other interests or family are now part of the possible problems you may have to contend with. Whilst it is normal for teens to want to spend time in their rooms alone, the amount of time matters. If your teen is not engaged in conversations with you, skipping family time, racing to their room as fast as they can, then you may have a problem. Like anything, technology can become addictive and watching for social media/device addiction is important.
These are some of the things I see come of social media. As a parent, set clearly defined expectations around social media and then try and be diligent in enforcing these expectations. Don’t fall into the trap of giving them access to different forms of social media until you believe they are ready and certainly not before they are legally allowed for their age. You aren’t being mean by keeping them safe. Talk to your teens, make sure they remain engaged with you and talk about their day. The more you are engaged the easier it will be to notice changes in behaviour and watch for problems. Set restrictions in the amount of time they can be online or in their room. Ensure they are interacting with family. Perhaps most importantly, try and form a trust and respect relationship with your teen. If you can create a safe relationship where your teen can tell you of their problems, concerns or mistakes without fear, then you have set yourself into a good space to be their guide and protector. The best role you can have as a parent of a teen.
If you need any further help in parenting around this area, then please get in contact. It is usually easier to work with parents around how to navigate this in a healthy way rather than work through problems with teens in later years.