I have regular conversations with parents about how to discuss various topics, and social media and electronics are two of the most common. We all know we should be talking about these things, but sometimes the conversation focuses on time limits, privileges, consequences, and parental concerns. This focus can lead your pre-teen or teen to come into the conversation with their defenses up. Consider these strategies as you talk with your children about their social media use.
- Start early. Don’t wait until the first problem arises to start educating your child about social media use and helping him or her learn how to use it in positive ways
- Discuss their relationship to the device or app. It can be healthy or unhealthy. Use examples from situations that make sense to them (i.e. “There are some people who have a positive influence on us and we can be around them for long stretches of time, and other people have a more neutral or negative influence and we have to set some boundaries to keep the relationship healthy. We need to do the same with social media.”).
- Emphasize you want to help them stay in control of this relationship and make sure it brings positive things (laughter, connection) not negative things (sadness, self-doubt, loneliness). You can return to this later to evaluate whether the relationship is healthy or not, and if not, look for ways to change it.
- Educate them about how it works. This might mean educating yourself first. For example, if a few people scroll past a post without commenting or liking it, the computer algorithm may start to show it to less people, assuming others aren’t interested. If your son or daughter is waiting for people to respond, they may assume everyone is looking and nobody cares, but it simply may be that they don’t see it because it’s not a fully human process. This is one of many reasons we all should be careful about what we expect from others through social media.
- Highlight their value to others. Be sure to emphasize that this value does not stem from social media interactions, but from who they are as a person. Social media can limit our ability to be our full selves, so encourage face-to-face time to balance out the digital relating.
- Ask questions you want them to learn to ask themselves: Who is going to see this post? What do you want from other people seeing the post?
As a side note, the ability to ask these types of questions rests within our prefrontal cortex, which is not fully developed in your child. Therefore, we shouldn’t expect that they are thinking through the various implications of posting a personal story or being “honest” in a way that others perceive as mean. Also, since they aren’t face-to-face they can’t read the social cues we heavily rely upon to calibrate our actions, making it even harder for them to regulate themselves. Keep this in mind as your consider how you can teach and coach them in the use of social media, and remind yourself that this is part of the answer to why we want to be careful with technology use. Over-use of technology can inhibit development in that prefrontal cortex that they need in order to develop skills to use technology thoughtfully.