Helping your teenager navigate social media
November 26, 2021
This week I share with you a recent article by Rev Dr Graham Stanton. Dr Stanton is a former TIGS parent. He now lives in Melbourne with his family where he works as a lecturer in Practical Theology at Ridley College. Dr Stanton writes about the important task of parenting young people through the potential pitfalls of social media. It is a longer article than our usual newsletter articles but the topic is so important and the advice so wise I thought I would share it with you. Dr Stanton gives his permission for us to use this article.
I first wrote ‘the Rules’ back in 2012. Our eldest daughter was about to turn thirteen and I wrote an article about how my wife and I planned to manage our children’s entree into the world of social media.
Of all the things I’ve written over the years this article is the one I get most requests for. Once every few months a message pops up in my social media with some variation of: “I remember something you wrote a while back when your daughter joined Facebook. Would you mind sharing that with me? Our eldest is just about to become a teenager and we would appreciate any advice we can get!”
Over the years I’ve sent people the link to the article, but as time goes on, I’ve grown more and more unsettled. It feels like I’m sending my friends instructions for how to re-shoe their horse when they’re asking about how to recharge their Prius!
In the next couple of weeks our youngest child turns seventeen; our eldest will be twenty-two. Not only is it time to update ‘the rules’ for modern times, there’s the chance to hear from those who lived under the regime!
‘Back then, social media was about sharing information and building online communities. Now it’s all about online marketing and staying in touch with the world.’
Back in 2013 our main concern was to regulate who our daughter connected with online, and to help her learn how to communicate in this new environment. Back then, social media was about sharing information and building online communities. Now it’s all about online marketing and staying in touch with the world. What was once challenging to contain has become almost uncontainable.
Our eldest pointed out to me, ‘most social media these days is less about connecting and more about consuming. Feeds aren’t just made up of all the posts you are following in chronological order of their being posted; they are selected according to what the algorithms think you want to see. It is tricky to see what people are viewing’. Our soon-to-be-seventeen-year-old says, ‘there’s a lot of random stuff from Instagram that gets thrown into your discovery which can’t really be monitored or controlled.’
So even if you’re ‘friends’ with your children on social media, unless you’re watching what they’re watching every time they’re watching, you’ve got little hope of genuinely monitoring what they’re consuming. Not to mention of course the multiple vehicles of ‘social media’ that would need to be monitored: Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, WeChat, Discord, TikTok, etc. You could choose to quit your job for the duration of your children’s adolescence and spend all your time loitering just over their shoulder to keep a close eye on things. But that’s not likely to do much for your career, not to mention your relationship with your children.
Then there’s the challenge of online marketing. Social media is no longer just about connecting friends with friends (or acquaintances); it’s increasingly about connecting businesses with customers. A digital marketing blog from 2017 celebrated the fact that ‘Users don’t just log in and browse, they tell the platforms their name, and where they live, what they like and who they know, painting the most vivid picture currently possible for marketers looking to target specific consumers’.
Our twenty-year-old has noticed that ‘social media is becoming more and more a business platform. It’s less social and more consuming and selling’. That can be great when, like her, you’re an artist looking to sell what you create. With a social media account even a thirteen-year-old can become a small-business person. It can be challenging if your thirteen-year-old becomes addicted to online shopping; and financially ruinous if they’re left on their own with your credit card (simple solution: never give your children your credit card security code!)
The easiest option is to just say no: ‘No child of mine will have a social media account or smart phone!’ All or nothing is always less complicated.
The problem is that the ‘nothing’ that you’re choosing doesn’t just include no social media, it is likely to also mean no social life. Our twenty-two-year-old has noticed the change: ‘social media is more important to a kid’s social life now than it was then. Even after getting a phone, I mostly still had people over to hang out or went to the beach or the city with friends. Group chats weren’t a thing when I got facebook but now it’s being in the group chat that’s definitive of friendships. If you’re not in the group chats, you’re missing out on conversations, and oftentimes, if your friends are negligent enough, the plans for catch-ups and other events are going to pass you by.’
‘The other change in social media over the past ten years is that the social media companies have got better at it!’
There is a good argument to make that saying no to social media is the choice of responsible parenting. It’s like saying no to drugs and alcohol. The other change in social media over the past ten years is that the social media companies have got better at it! To get the case for the prosecution just watch The Social Dilemma on Netflix. The inventor of the ‘infinite scroll’ has said that his invention wastes about 200,000 human lifetimes a day. Social media is intentionally created to be addictive. The consequences of social media addiction are dire: For young teenagers, especially for girls, greater social media use is linked to online harassment, poor sleep, low self-esteem, poor body image, all leading to increased symptoms of depression.
If you are looking for a social media platform to ban, then SnapChat is a decent contender. While the transient nature of snaps may be an attempt to reflect the dynamics of real-time conversation, in reality, this platform does have associations with cyber-bullying and sexting. If your child’s friends are choosing SnapChat as their preferred mode of communication, it’s worth asking whether there are any ulterior motives at play. That said, just by banning snapchat doesn’t mean your child is now safe from these dangers. SnapChat may be a popular vehicle for bullying and sharing illicit images, but it’s certainly not the only one. Bullies and predators will find a way, so one ban isn’t a license to let up on vigilance.
Less sinister, but no less damaging of relationships is the SnapChat: when you and a friend have shared snaps within 24 hours of each other for three days in a row. The more days you snap, the higher your streak. What sounds like a great marker of a committed friendship is really just a superficial measure of ‘connection’ that bears very little relation to actual friendship. Instead of investing time in sharing life with others, ‘best friends’ end up being defined by how long your SnapChat is. So banning SnapChat doesn’t have to just involve a conversation with your children about avoiding sexting, it’s also an opportunity to talk with them about the nature of friendship.
Banning SnapChat is also an opportunity to teach your children that you can never assume that what you do online is going to remain private. You can never guarantee that what you intended to be just between you and someone else isn’t going to end up being shared with others. Even if SnapChat promises that snaps are permanently deleted and irretrievable once they’ve been viewed, there’s nothing to stop someone taking a screenshot and sharing it with the world. (If they take a screenshot of your post, you’ll get notified that they did; but if they use another phone to take a photo of the screen you’ll have no idea).
‘I’m not persuaded that responsible parents have to launch an all-out ban on social media. Perhaps I am just being overly pessimistic, but I cannot see the world changing back to the halcyon days of the 1990s.’
However, despite all the negative findings, I’m not persuaded that responsible parents have to launch an all-out ban on social media. Perhaps I am just being overly pessimistic, but I cannot see the world changing back to the halcyon days of the 1990s. The option to reject all social media is open to you, but it is not the only option. And, I suspect that the costs to your child’s social life and the tension it is likely to create in your relationship is going to be too high for most.
Alongside the dangers there are a lot of benefits to digital technology. Clearly Microsoft were putting their best foot forward in their 2019 Super Bowl ad ‘We all Win’. Nevertheless it’s hard to argue against the gains to human life that have come through social media and related technologies. Our son taught himself to play the guitar from YouTube. During lockdown he made new friends through Discord. His YouTube channel was a great success, provided you assess it in terms of being an outlet for his creativity rather than a pathway to fame and fortune!
Remember too that not all social media is created equal. Our son points out that ‘Discord is pretty much completely messaging and calling, so no feed or anything. With gaming and stuff, having something like Discord can make it a lot more social.’ Discord and WhatsApp don’t have the same issues with manipulation and intrusion as Facebook and Instagram.
Ultimately I’m still advocating the ‘supervised access’ approach. As I wrote back in 2013, I want to approach social media much like what we would have done if we’d owned a swimming pool. When your children are toddlers, you make sure the pool has a fence with a child-proof gate. Up to a certain age and ability, the pool is simply a no-go area. Once the children are old enough to know how to climb the fence (or stand on a bucket to reach the lock) they’re also ready to exercise some responsibility. They need to learn that ‘just because you can open the gate without an adult doesn’t mean you’re allowed to’. For some years, you’ll only allow children to be in the pool if there’s a responsible adult with them in the water, teaching them how to swim. Eventually you’ll allow them to be in the pool on their own, provided you’re watching them from inside the house. Once you’re confident they’ve learnt how to be responsible, they’re free to go swimming on their own.
One avenue for supervised access is to use one of the many parental control apps that are available these days. These can function a bit like the gate in the pool fence with the latch that’s too high for children to reach. Used well I’m sure these can be beneficial. The danger lies in thinking that just because you’ve installed the app that you no longer need to pay any attention. The pool fence helps establish a boundary, but it can never ensure the boundary is kept. If what lies on the other side of the fence is attractive enough, most children are going to find a bucket to help them reach the lock. An app will function well when it’s an outcome of your relationship with your child, not when it’s a replacement.
Raising children is a time-consuming, energy-sapping, intellectually-demanding, relational investment. Helping your children learn how to navigate social media needs to be part of that relationship. That means giving time to negotiating commitments, sharing insights, celebrating victories, lamenting losses, wrestling together through challenges, and restoring connection after a fight.
‘When it comes to this new and ever-changing world of social media, no responsible parent can just let their children loose to fend for themselves.’
When it comes to this new and ever-changing world of social media, no responsible parent can just let their children loose to fend for themselves. We want to take on our responsibility as parents to ‘bring our children up in the fear and instruction of the Lord’ (Ephesians 6:4) even in relation to, or rather, particularly in relation to the world of social media.
Hence the rules, reconditioned; or at least, my suggestion for the rules that you may want to consider adopting or adapting to suit your own family:
Welcome to social media! Until you turn 16, these are the rules:
You promise to:
- Not download apps, sign up to new accounts, buy things online, or change your privacy settings without talking to us first;
- Not bring your device to meal times;
- Have at least one entirely social-media free time-period once a day, and one entirely social media free day once a week;
- Renegotiate these rules whenever we think it’s appropriate.
Mum and I promise to:
- Talk with you when you want to download apps, sign up to new accounts, buy things online, or change your privacy settings;
- Not bring our devices to meal times;
- Not use our devices whenever you want to talk to us;
- Help you learn how to navigate this world in a way that protects you from harm and from harming others;
- Renegotiate these rules whenever you think it’s appropriate.
Rules 1, 2 and 4 (for children), and all the rules for parents are all about building open conversations. None of this will prevent children coming up with elaborate plans of deception, but I’d argue that stricter rules won’t either (and may well encourage it).
Take note of rules 2 and 3 for parents: Make sure you’re prepared to stick to this before making promises you can’t keep. You may want to add options for negotiated device use during meals—though I’d suggest that the cumulative value of carving out face-to-face-family-time-sans-phones-or-tablets, will far outweigh any losses from a delayed phone call or web-search.
Rule 3 for children about having device free times each day, and a device free day each week are an effort to keep addiction at bay. Negotiate with your children when will be good times to do this: you could try, ‘no screens before breakfast’, or ‘screens off an hour before bedtime’. A discipline of fasting from technology helps wean our brains off the social media fix, and train our hearts to find satisfaction in other things.
Rule 4 for parents is the big one. Discipline is more about teaching than it is about rules and sanctions. To do this well you’re going to need to get educated yourself. Get to know what’s happening in the world of social media: read articles, watch The Social Dilemma, talk to other parents, talk to young adults, and above all, talk with your children.
‘how to identify fake news; how to interpret memes; how to communicate online in ways that are clean, clear, and kind.’
Depending on what’s going on for your child you’re going want to talk with them about how to identify fake news; how to interpret memes; how to communicate online in ways that are clean, clear, and kind. You’ll want to teach them not to post anything when they’re angry; to avoid social media when they’re sad. Teach them that ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch!’ (anything advertised as ‘free’ is hiding what it’s really costing you or someone else). Talk with them about privacy, and their digital footprint.
Whatever else, make sure you talk with your children about what constitutes a good life: that there are alternatives to clamouring after popularity and fame. That good relationships take time and courage: time to build trust and openness, shared experience, repentance and forgiveness.
None of these lessons can be reduced to simple rules (‘you must not believe fake news’; ‘you must invest in good friendships’). All the rules can do is to set the minimum standards. The rules clear the way for wisdom to flourish. And wisdom is best learnt in the day-to-day conversations that happen in the midst of life (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).
Remember that the rules are up for constant review. They need to be if they’re going to continue to be an expression of teaching and trust. No set of rules is ever going to control the outcomes. You’re going to need to trust your child, and you’ll need to grow to trust them more as they get older.
Back in 2013 I wrote about how fearful I was that our daughter would be hurt as a result of being on social media. And we were fearful that she would be involved in hurting others, even if only inadvertently. We took the lock off the gate and recognised that we needed to be alert particularly as she learnt to find her feet. By the grace of God she’s turned out okay!
After reading the rules we set in 2013, our youngest said, ‘I didn’t really get the same level of rules I don’t think in terms of monitoring on Instagram when I first got it. Could be from [my sisters] or from good parenting maybe I guess, but I went pretty well without that.’ There’s at least been good parenting from his mother, but there’s definitely also been input from his sisters. It seems that creating a trusting environment with the older two helped the third one find his way.
To you who are becoming Parents-of-Teenagers for the first time in the 2020s, I don’t envy you. Being the parent of a teenager in today’s world is second only in difficulty to being a teenager in today’s world.
One day, God willing, your children will be adult members of the community and of the church. One day they may well have responsibility to teach their own children how to navigate a world that we can barely imagine. As long as you live, they will always be the object of your concern and love, but one day you will no longer be responsible for their choices.
But for now, you’ll need some rules.
Director, Centre for Children’s and Youth Ministry,
Lecturer in Practical Theology
Ridley College, Melbourne