Ask The Experts: Social Media and Teens

Helping teens find a healthy balance with social media


Q: How can I limit/manage my teens’ use of social media and electronics without damaging their social lives? All of their friends’ social interactions are online.

A: My approach is rather than thinking about limits, how do you have a conversation about balance? Healthy households talk about the social contract. The child and parent each make a list: The parent lists what they want and don’t want the child to do with the device; and the child lists what they want and don’t want to do with the device.  Write your lists separately, and talk together about how to achieve balance. When you ask kids what matters to them, you see how aware they really are. I remember one girl had an entire section of different rules for when school finals were scheduled.

Make family rules: Thou shall not touch the cell phone at dinner. Thou shall not sleep with the cell phone by your side. I’ve never seen limits implemented as a top-down power game that work well. This is about both parent and child being responsible. The things that get us through all these hard times are trust and communication. Parents want an easy mechanism, but that’s not how parenting works. Introduce other adults into your kid’s life that can be good sounding boards: coaches, youth ministers, the cool aunt and uncle. Say, “You don’t have to talk to me, but please talk to somebody.” You don’t see what is going on in Instagram, but someone else does.        

In my book It’s Complicated, I tell a story about a father who was friended by his daughter on Myspace. A survey answer said cocaine was her favorite drug. The father asked his daughter about it. “Oh, Dad, those surveys are so funny. The kids who smoke pot at school are so lame, and the kids who do mushrooms are totally crazy. Your generation did cocaine and you turned out okay,” she said.

Once the father realized his daughter wasn’t doing cocaine, they had a great conversation about his generation and drugs in her school. 

From the time our kids are babies, we don’t know what the heck is going on in their heads. We see the digital traces [on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook] but they are not always accurate. It’s a digital trace of something going on in their lives that we misinterpret all the time.

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