Teenagers and social media


How do you decide when your teenager is ready for social media? This is one of the most common questions from parents, say the founders of Be in Touch, Kate Farina and Josh Ramsey.

To parents trying to keep up in this tech age, it feels like there is a new social media app on the scene every month. Teenagers (or teens) and tweens (the age range commonly designated as 10 to 13 years) love, want and will tell you they need social media! Figuring out when to cave to your child's pleas for a social media account is easier said than done. We can't look to our peer parents for guidance, as they are also trying to figure this out. With more and more of life happening online, having Instagram, TikTok or Snapchat can feel like a lifeline to kids. On the other hand, parents are right to be concerned about the very real dangers that children can be exposed to on social media. The stakes are high!

There are many varied opinions, but ultimately parents need to take a decision that is right for their family, after having considered all the pros and cons.

"Real age" ratings

Most of the popular social media apps set a minimum age of 13. However, what is not common knowledge is that app developers are not regulated in the same way as movie and TV content producers are. Parents need to be aware that an app developer sets its own age "guideline" on the app stores. This age is often much younger than it should be as, of course, the younger the users are when they get hooked, the higher the revenue!

The news feeds on the popular social media apps are a doorway to a world of age-inappropriate and disturbing content that is difficult for any parent to filter and monitor. Add perfect posts, cruel comments and stranger danger into this and the result is unpleasant. Social media can have a significant impact on the self-esteem, body image, values and beliefs of adolescents.

Be in Touch recommends Common Sense Media as the touchstone for real age ratings for social media apps. In the absence of much needed regulation, Common Sense is a global non governmental organisation (NGO) that reviews and rates a range of apps and games. They provide "real age" ratings for these apps and games. In their view, Snapchat is rated 16+ and TikTok and Instagram are rated 15+.

What is appropriate for your teen?

It's difficult to prescribe a precise age limit for social media, as children need to have social and emotional skills to cope with the demands of these platforms. Parents should base their decisions about social media on a child's development and maturity, rather than just their numeric age. Keep in mind that adolescent brains are wired to be impulsive. Added to this, their prefrontal cortex (which is the part of the brain responsible for managing their impulses) isn't fully developed until the early 20s for females and late 20s for males.

These conversation starters may help determine if your teen is ready for social media:

  • Do you know what the app is used for?
  • How do you plan to use it?
  • What sort of things will you post on the app?
  • How will you deal with criticism, cyber bullies, strangers, inappropriate content, and views that you disagree with?
  • How can you filter or curate the app stories or news feed?
  • How can you make the app safer from a safety, privacy and location perspective?
  • Who would you talk to about things you might see or read on the app that make you feel uncomfortable, sad or hurt?

If your teen displays a lack of understanding around what the apps are used for, are vague when discussing how they'll use the app, or are not able to adjust privacy and safety settings, then it's fair to say they probably aren't ready for it. Still not sure? These signs might be useful pointers:

1. Your child understands cause and effect

As adults, we understand that anything we put on the internet is pretty much permanent. Even if we try to delete it, there's no guarantee it's been completely wiped from the record and won't come back to haunt us.

Adults can think in the abstract, play out different possibilities in our heads, and make guesses about other people's motives and how they could affect us. It also (mostly) keeps us from saying or doing things online that we might really regret later. But even we still make mistakes sometimes!

Kids are concrete thinkers, living in the here-and-now, and using the information they have in each moment to make decisions. It is harder for them to play out hypothetical situations in their minds, especially when those things could occur far in the future. While it is totally normal for kids to think this way, it also makes it harder for them to understand some of the risks inherent in social media, understand cause and effect and anticipate possible issues to make safe choices.

2. Your child has a healthy body image

There are few adults whose self-esteem about body shape, weight, and appearance is completely unshakeable. Adolescents, both girls and boys, generally feel extremely vulnerable and open to criticism about the way that they look.

Researchers have been looking at possible links between social media use and poor body image and eating disorders in young girls. All indications are that photo-based social media apps make girls feel worse about their bodies. Social media may not be solely to blame for the body image issues that teens and tweens must deal with today, but it doesn't make things any easier.

Tweens and teens on social media are overwhelmed with images that are designed to look candid and casual, but in reality have been heavily edited and posed. It is a standard of perfection that is only becoming more difficult to attain as filters and photo editing apps become more sophisticated. Young people can't help but compare themselves to others on social media, whether it's the lifestyle presented, or the number of likes or followers.

3. Your child has a positive mental attitude

Given that many people live with their smartphones as their virtual companions, it is very difficult to unplug. The more we use social media, the less happy we seem to be. Part of the unhealthy cycle is that we keep coming back to social media, even though it doesn't make us feel very good.

To manage it, rather than letting it manage you, social media requires a strong sense of self. You need a good dose of discipline and a balanced lifestyle to cope with the potential depression, anxiety and feelings of isolation that can come with too much use.

There is no shortage of self-harm and suicide content on all the most popular social media apps. Teens today are more vulnerable than ever to what can quickly become fatal trends. A recent study shows that the 25% increase in suicide attempts among teenagers in America between 2009 and 2017 correlates with the growing use of these platforms.

4. Communication with your child is good

Chris McKenna, founder of Protect Young Eyes, suggests that you should make sure you've had both the sex talk as well as the porn talk with your child before letting them loose on social media. Even kids who are not looking for it can stumble across explicit material on any of the popular social media apps. You want your child to be prepared if that happens. Most of all, you want them to come and talk to you, or to another trusted adult.

Being on social media also makes your child more vulnerable to sexual predators, which means you need go beyond simple stranger danger talks. Your child should know how to respond to (as in block and report) inappropriate messaging, recognise signs of grooming, and have a plan for what to do and who to talk to if someone makes them feel uncomfortable. You'll also want to talk about what to do if that uncomfortable pressure is coming from someone your child knows, like someone asking for inappropriate photos.

The world of social media requires a certain level of mutual trust between parents and kids. As a parent, you'll want to know that your child is responsible and makes good decisions. However, your child also needs to trust that they can come to you with problems, and that you won't immediately panic or ground them for the rest of time. If something inappropriate happens online, your child should feel safe coming to you for help. This will go a long way toward keeping them out of harm's way.

The good, the bad and the ugly of social media

Social media is indeed an amazing tool for connecting people and it opens a never-ending world of discovery. But once you've made the decision to allow your teen onto social media, understand that it is like trying to put a tiger back in a cage. It is very hard to go back on your decision.

Know that social media will be an irresistible time suck, a black hole into which your teen will disappear if you don't help them monitor their time spent on it. Social media apps are difficult for parents to monitor without help from parental controls. It will open them up to criticism, cyber bullying, stranger contact, pornography, self-harm and suicide content, drugs, alcohol and vaping as well as values and beliefs that may not resonate with your own family's choices.

You will have to walk the path with them, helping them with their choices, discussing different views and giving them different perspectives. You will need to talk to your teen about the fantasy versus reality of the social media world. You'll have to help them understand that their identity and sense of worth is not determined by the number of likes, comments and shares. Online parenting is a difficult journey, but it is ultimately so rewarding. Sign up for the Be In Touch newsletter for practical tips and tools on how to stay in touch with your teen as you undertake take this journey together.

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