As a mother of two teens and a Psychotherapist who has treated adolescents for more than a decade, I can safely say that no individual teen behavior shocks me anymore.

By the same token, I am growing more concerned about teen peer pressure that is driving large numbers of adolescents to make poor choices on social media, which impacts their reputations, their psychological well-being as well as their future lives.

The latest trend among our youth is to send out “nudes”. A “nude” is a partial or full naked picture sent via text, private or direct message, or Snapchat. According to many of my teen clients, “all the kids are doing it”. I have researched this topic by calling every colleague I know who works with teens. Sadly, I learned that “nudes” are the norm. Sadly, I know that mostly young girls often send these pictures, without being asked for one. Sadly, people take screen shots of these pictures and post them on public sites. Many kids believe Snapchat protects them from screen shots because the Snapchat app alerts the user if someone takes a picture of their picture. Not true! Now there is another app to get around that. The new app allows users to take Snapchat screen shots anonymously – without alerting the original sender that this has happened. And sadly, young girls (and boys) are losing their abilities to learn how to value their bodies.

What can you do? Awareness and education are always important, which is why I am writing this piece. Parents must have the tough conversations. Parents MUST monitor their kids’ phones, iPads, computers, etc. Phones are not a right; they are a privilege! They are not like a child’s diary where we respect privacy. A notebook and pen are VERY different from full access to technology. Kids navigate their way through social pressures 24/7. When we were kids, we could turn off most social pressures once the school day was over. Our children never have a break! Our children are constantly exposed to seeing plans they haven’t been invited to (I can’t count how many teen girls have been on my couch in tears about this one), peer rating systems about appearance, cyber-bullying, potentially unsafe contact with strangers, sites to anonymously send and/or receive questions about absolutely anything, and topics they don’t have the brain capacity to understand yet. Some people think the solution is to make technology off limits to our kids. I do not believe this is realistic. Technology is here to stay. We have to learn to deal with it. There are too many ways teenagers can access technology. It’s almost impossible to consistently enforce your child’s abstinence from technology.

But, parents can be involved. Parents can keep their eyes open. Parents can enforce rules, limits, and do their best to maintain structures. How you do this will look different for each family. Making sure you have all your kids’ passcodes and that they know you have their passcodes is a place to start. Make a rule that you must be their “friend” or “follower” on social media accounts. BEWARE of landmines: your kids will find ways to make secret/private accounts and try to hide them from you. This is where consistent monitoring helps. Tell your kids you will randomly check their social media channels, knowing this will help them make more thoughtful decisions. You may think you will get more information if your kids don’t know you are checking, but remember the goal is to help them learn, grow, navigate, process, and NOT post or do anything that can’t be undone. We want to stop the mess before it happens. Randomly checking your children’s devices will give you more information than you might think. Remember, we are dealing with immature brains. Kids will delete, delete, delete if they know you are checking, but they will also slip up. The therapist in me assures you that if your kids want/need help, they will unconsciously or consciously leave it where you can see it.

For most parents (including myself), monitoring feels daunting, overwhelming, and filled with anxiety. It’s like playing an endless game of “whack-a-mole”. You put out one fire and another one rears its ugly head. You may need the help of a professional to manage your feelings around this. I also recommend speaking with other parents if you feel comfortable doing so. Changing adolescent behavior begins at home, but managing your children’s time on social media is also a community and global issue.

Here are more ideas to help you manage your children’s social media time:

  1. Keep your kids busy with interesting “low-tech” activities;
  2. Schedule “no phone” time during those activities as well as homework and family time;
  3. Create ways for your children to take breaks from their devices. You will be pleasantly surprised how much calmer they are;
  4. Spend as much time as you can with your sons and daughters. They need you now more than ever even though they say they don’t.

The following is an example of how to safely start your kids on social media based on my personal experience.

When my daughter was 12, she asked for an Instagram (IG) account. I wanted to say no, but experience taught me that if her request is the norm, it’s best to allow it with limits. So, I made social media rules, put them on a contract and had her sign it. The rules were as follows:

  1. You may only have Instagram. No other accounts!
  2. Your account has to be private.
  3. You must give me your passcode and I must be one of your followers.
  4. I must approve all of your posts for the first 6 months so that I can teach you about social media reputations.
  5. You cannot post more than once a day.
  6. You may only like the posts (photos) and write compliments in the comments. If somebody asks you a question in the comments, you may answer them via private messaging.
  7. If you become part of a group text via private messaging, you only write compliments.

My daughter agreed to these rules and opened her first IG account. Within a couple of months, I noticed that she was not following the “compliments only” (#6) rule. She was engaging in the Instagram comments sections with a few girls who weren’t being very nice. I gave her a warning and told her that if she broke the rule again, she would lose the account for one month. Shortly thereafter, she broke the rule so I shut down her account for one month. I later found out that she opened a secret account. It didn’t take much investigating on my part to find it, and I am not very tech-savvy. After that, I terminated Internet access through her phone and explained that she could not have any social media again until she was 13. I also told her that if she opened any secret accounts, I would take her phone away for 6 months. My daughter did not open any more secret accounts. When she turned 13, I restored her IG.

This time, I explained to her why I made each rule:

  1. You need to show us that you can follow all of the rules on one account before you can have any others;
  2. You are 13 and you may not have an open account for anybody to follow you because that is not safe. You need to be able to approve all of your followers;
  3. I make the rules because I (we) pay for phone;
  4. You need time to learn about appropriate posts and your social media reputation;
  5. I don’t want you to be on IG a lot. A “one post a day” limit helps keep you from being on IG all the time;
  6. This is probably the most important rule! Writing only compliments or nothing at all helps you avoid “drama” including teasing, bullying, or insults. Answering questions in private protects your privacy and helps you avoid drama.

It has been more than a year, and my daughter has followed most of the rules! She seems relieved to have them. She likes the guidance and structure. I don’t like that our children are being raised in this social media culture, but it is the reality. Rules help. My daughter doesn’t spend much time on IG. She posts about 1-3x per week. And so far, she has avoided most of the drama that social media can inflame.

 

September 27, 2015