Social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram play a large role in the lives of teens.
We hear about the risks all the time, such as Internet addiction, cyberbullies, scammers, and predators. But we don’t always hear about the benefits of social media and the many aspects of social media that are positive for your teen.
Teens Experience the Online World Differently Than Adults
It’s important to note that, according to the Journal of Applied Communication Research, teens don’t separate the online world from “real life” the way previous generations have, including their parents. Today’s teens have been playing with tablets and smartphones since before they could read. They’ve been going back and forth between their screens and what’s physically around them since their earliest memories. Digital media is woven through their everyday lives.
That said, adolescents still need parents and teachers to be resources and guides while they’re navigating the online space, helping them build communication skills and creating boundaries for their social media interactions until they eventually learn how to establish healthy limits for themselves.
Social media can benefit teens by providing:
- A creative outlet and a place to share their thoughts.
- Day-to-day connection with family and friends.
- An opportunity for identity development and exploration.
A creative outlet and a place to share their thoughts
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, many teens use social media to talk about their interests, accomplishments, and families. They share their thoughts and feelings about ideas that matter to them and things that are happening in their daily lives.
Day-to-day connection with family and friends
When young people share their thoughts, feelings, and creative expressions on social networking sites, they create opportunities for discussions, and not only from one set of friends, but from a complex network of people they know: multiple groups of friends from different phases of their lives, including Uncle Joe who lives down the street, their sister who is away at college, and their friend who moved halfway around the world when they were 10 years old.
Social media can help young people learn how to navigate these multiple groups, and according to linguists and communication researchers who study teen interaction on social platforms, this takes a lot of skill.
Social media discussions can build relationships and social skills. Friends and family may see a side of your teen they wouldn’t see when they bump into each other at family get-togethers or in between class periods.
With social distancing during the pandemic, social media platforms allowed those relationships to stay strong even when people couldn’t be together physically. As a result, social media became an important mental health resource for some.
An opportunity for identity development and exploration
“Being on social media presents an opportunity to discover who teens are and who they want to be in a positive way,” said Alex Hamilton, clinical director at Embark’s Lake House Academy.
“A lot of teenagers will find they can relate to others in different groups. Maybe it’s an art group or a gaming group, or they just find people with similar interests who are facing similar challenges.”
How Do You Set Your Teens Up for a Healthy Online Life?
Adolescents need parental guidance in many areas of their lives, and that includes time spent online. To give your teen a good online foundation, Hamilton recommended setting boundaries and encouraging transparency.
Boundaries: Set the terms for online interactions
- Know their apps: “Come up with a list of applications your teen can use. Maybe they’re using the phone to call you and Facetime to call family and friends,” Hamilton said. Know which social media accounts they’re using, and decide together what other apps should be on their phones. Make sure you’re aware of what games they’re using.
- Agree on their contacts: Decide together with your teen on who should be on their contacts list and who shouldn’t. Just like you should know their friends, you should know why they’re connected with various people on social media. Discuss people you don’t think are safe or beneficial. It’s OK to say no to certain people being social media contacts with your teen.
- Determine time limits: “Time limits are really important. We know there are addictive properties to social media, especially with how the brain is developing and how it’s wired,” Hamilton said. “Your family screen time limit may look like a two-hour-a-day limit on the smartphone or a requirement that the phone gets turned in at night.”
Boundaries are about physical and emotional safety. They protect your child’s well-being. When an adolescent is exposed to social media use without limits, they can get overwhelmed by the negative experiences. That can affect their mental health and self-esteem. Boundaries make the environment safer and provide a buffer from the negative effects of social media.
Also, make sure you’re modeling these boundaries yourself. Teens should see you controlling your time on your phone and laptop too. Healthy online practices are good for everyone.
Transparency: Ask your teen for openness
Ask your teen about their online conversations just like you ask about their face-to-face interactions. Not to pry, but because you’re interested.
Talk to your teen about what’s online — the good and the bad — and let them know if there are any problems when they’re on social media platforms, you want them to tell you.
“The more that parents can have a transparent and trusting relationship with their teen, the more they can intervene when needed and help with boundaries,” Hamilton said.
“The reality is, they’re going to grow up and deal with technology boundaries. They’re going to experience how they present themselves on social media and what that looks like in a job interview, or when they’re trying to find new friends after moving to a different community for college. It’s going to be a part of their lives.
“As the parent, you are able to model some of those technology boundaries of your own as well as just have really open conversations about it with your teen,” she continued. “‘Hey, I got on social media, and it actually made me feel lonelier’ or ‘It made me feel really happy because I connected with a new friend.’ You’re showing how to navigate those feelings together.”
But if your teen is experiencing distress after being on their phone or computer, can’t seem to put it down, or is having problems engaging with other areas of their lives, you may need to find out what aspects of social media could be causing problems. The answer may be to take the phone away for a while or look at options for dealing with social media and Internet addiction.
Overall, Social Media Use Can Be a Good Thing
Social networking gives your teen an opportunity to grow some amazing relationships with friends and family. Teens are fairly adept at navigating the challenges they face when they’re interacting with others on social networking sites. But your teen still needs your guidance and boundaries for their well-being. Sit down with them and define those boundaries. Talk about what’s going on in their lives, including with their friends on social media, and let them know you’re always there to help.
Social media will be a part of their lives for a long time to come, so help them develop the skills to manage it.