How To Help Teens Safely Navigate Social Media

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Teens and tweens spend a huge chunk of time on their phones. And with the world at their fingertips, it's all too easy for them to get sucked into social media platforms for hours at a time. Plus, they can access any information they want, from inappropriate images to celebrity gossip.

While your first inclination may be to shut down your child's access to social media, Nakia Allen, M.D., a pediatrician at Henry Ford Health, says that's probably not the best solution. Not only will it impact your child's relationship with you, it will also affect their ability to make friends and foster connections with peers.

"Social media is important to many teens because it allows them to expand their circles, find their voice and better understand their emotions," Dr. Allen says. "It's almost like responding to a journal prompt, but with social media teens are responding to pictures, videos and statements, and that can encourage critical thinking."

Social media is also a form of social currency for young people. It can serve as a conversation starter, particularly for kids who are on the shy side. "In fact, NOT being on any social media platforms can make a child feel left out," Dr. Allen says. But that doesn't mean social media should be a free-for-all for kids.

The Drawbacks Of Social Media For Tweens And Teens

Social media platforms have many features that flood the reward centers of the brain with feel-good chemicals like dopamine. For many tweens, teens and young adults, social media is as addictive as any other mind-altering substance.

In addition to making it tough for teens to break free of their screens, social media has the unique ability to make kids, particularly girls, feel bad about themselves.

"If your kid has a bad hair day or a huge pimple, they may feel like they're the only person in the world with a less-than-perfect image — and that's destructive to anyone's self-image, no matter what their age or social status," Dr. Allen says.

Smarter Social Media Use

Social media isn't going anywhere. Your best bet as a parent is to monitor your children's social media platforms and make sure you explain the drawbacks. In fact, social media can act as a springboard to teach your child about social and emotional growth, real versus curated images, and the negative effects of social comparison.

Like many online activities, social media isn’t inherently good or bad — but how it's used can make all the difference. Before you let your child loose in the social media world, it's important to establish ground rules around use, just as you would for any other pursuit. Consider these six steps:

  1. Be safe. Take advantage of parental controls for mature content and explain that there are predators lurking online. "You want your kids to feel comfortable coming to you if something happens online that makes them uncomfortable," Dr. Allen says.
  2. Start slow. Start with one social media platform at a time, and build up slowly, suggests Dr. Allen. "And focus first on text and chat-based sites. That teaches children to focus more on what they're thinking than what they look like." For younger children, consider social media platforms that are designed for kids like Facebook Messenger for Kids.
  3. Report what you see. Watch how your kids behave before and after they've connected with social media — and share your findings with them. Do they seem a little more irritable minutes after scanning Instagram? Do they seem upbeat after watching a YouTube clip? Call their attention to the changes you see and help them determine what that means for their social media usage.
  4. Discuss cyberbullying. Social media has changed the way kids are bullied, which can have a severe impact on your child. "Once the story spreads, it spreads. There's no way to get it back," Dr. Allen says. "It's important for parents to educate kids about the permanence of social media posts — and that they need to be careful.
  5. Check your kid’s image. Before you allow your children to join a social media platform, make sure their self-esteem is solid. "They need to be confident in their own shoes before they start comparing themselves to others," Dr. Allen says. "When your children can provide self-affirmations to you, that's when they should be able to join social media."
  6. Model appropriate use. Parents need to be intentional about how they use social media, too. If you spend hours on your phone, so will your kids. No matter how much your family loves social media, you still need to connect through real-life activities to stay mentally and emotionally healthy. Unplug for a bit so you can pull out the board games, bake some cookies, go for a hike or shoot hoops outside.

Convinced your child is not ready for social media? Provide them with a new narrative so they don't feel left out. Teach them to explain to their peers that they're not on social media because they're too busy with physical, face-to-face activities.

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To find a doctor at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.

Dr. Nakia Allen is a pediatrician seeing patients at Henry Ford Medical Center locations in Dearborn and Detroit.

Categories: ParentWell