Consider this: Today’s teens do not know a world without smartphones.
That’s not all bad. Social media can help kids connect with each other, it can make the world feel smaller, and it can offer ways to find others who share common interests and concerns.
But those benefits come with plenty of challenges. Many teens obsess over FOMO—“fear of missing out” on social opportunities—and experience increased anxiety levels as they compare themselves to idealized images of their peers.
“On social media, you look around and think no one else is struggling, because they don’t show it on the outside,” says Jennifer Hartstein MD, whose practice, Glendale Pediatrics, is part of the CHLA Health Network. “But the truth is that everyone struggles.”
Then there’s cyberbullying, cyberstalking, exposure to inappropriate content, distraction from homework and very real social isolation—to name just a few potential pitfalls.
Parents must offer protection
Some parents, Dr. Arora says, prioritize respecting their children’s online privacy. But parenting is never about letting kids go through life without guardrails. When it comes to social media, parents bear a serious responsibility to offer guidance and rules.
Dr. Hartstein encourages parents to lead by example, putting down their own phones and connecting with their kids with intention and presence.
“Be available, and create media-free spaces in your family life,” she says. “Teenagers can get plenty of content online, but they need parents to give them values.”
How early should kids use social media? A federal law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, makes it illegal for children under 13 to have social media accounts. But even after 13, it’s best to put off social media for as long as possible.
When their children do enter social media, parents should have a conversation with them, reviewing rules and privacy settings, Dr. Arora says. If you’re not familiar with the sites or apps they’re using, take the time to get educated on what your kids are doing.
‘Friend’ your children
When kids first open social-media accounts, they’re often motivated to accumulate friends or followers. Dr. Hartstein suggests taking advantage of that window to “friend” your kids. (Most won’t be so transparent or eager to connect when they get older.)
Two firm social-media rules: Kids shouldn’t allow people whom they don’t personally know into their social-media networks, and they should never share account passwords with anyone.
Before kids send anything on social media, encourage them to ask themselves: Are you sure you want to send that? And if a child or teen receives a text or other message containing inappropriate content, the best response is to delete the content and reply with a succinct message: “I did not request this.”
It’s important to remember that teenagers’ brains are still in the process of developing, and social media exposes them to very real risks. It’s crucial for parents to be there to help them navigate this challenging area, Dr. Arora says.
And as Dr. Hartstein points out, every social-media encounter also offers kids the opportunity to be let their best selves shine: “Remind them, you’re trying to make the world a better place,” she says. “How are you going to do it?”
Three Social-Media Tips for Parents:
- Review your child’s privacy settings. It’s important for kids (and parents) to know with whom they’re sharing information.
- Monitor your child’s activity. That doesn’t mean spy, but teens should know that parents are aware of—and care about—what they’re up to.
- Talk to your kids about what they’re seeing online. Listen attentively and if problems arise, devise solutions together.