Parenting 2.0: Tips for Social Media
By Andrew Clark, medical director for KidsPeace Hospital

You may overhear parents saying, “He lives on Facebook” or “She is constantly texting.” Parents want to know what to do in this social media age of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Social media has been coined Web 2.0, and parents want an upgrade to Parenting 2.0. Parenting in a time of accelerated technological advancements can be difficult. Luckily, 87 percent of parents are online and 73 percent of families have broadband access at home, according to a 2007 Pew Internet study. It is important to know the concerns for the social Internet. Often adolescents are quicker to embrace new technologies than adults, seeking an advantage for their developmental goals as they enter young adulthood. This makes the generation gap seem wider and wider. Hopefully, some basic tips may help to close it.

The most important rule for parents: Do not avoid the technology you don’t understand. Often parents are intimidated by the multi-tasking teenager who responds to a Tweet, while watching a video online and updating a social network profile. Parents should try to master the same social media that their children use by spending time with them online. Similar to knowing how to read, social media literacy is a competency that must be achieved. Imagine if your kids could read and write but you could not. Writing letters and reading books would seem intimidating and time consuming. Get your kids to show you what they are doing online. Acknowledge their knowledge and have them teach you new things. Ask them to set up a social network profile for you or show you how to Tweet. Online human communication is certainly different because it is faster, briefer and sometimes anonymous, but knowing is half the battle.

Due to the immediate gratification and novelty that comes with online social media, an addictive or compulsive nature for its use can develop. Excessive online social media use has been correlated to psychiatric illnesses such as major depression and social anxiety disorder. Luckily, most of the basic parenting rules of consistent and specific limit setting, structure and supervision still work when applied to the new social media. The unhealthy excessive overuse of video games is certainly another concern to watch out for in this day and age. Parents can use digital timers and earned privilege time allotments to place limits on the amount of time spent playing video games. For teenagers, social rewards are the most potent in the adolescent brain for reinforcing behaviors. Teens talk about the “fear of missing out” to describe their need for having their smart phones by their sides at all times. Again, a specific allotment for social media time management, for example one hour every day at 7 p.m., may be helpful to curb excessive use.

In addition to overuse, two other main concerns of the social Internet for parents to watch out for are cyber-bullying and inappropriate stranger contact. Don’t sound the alarm! Excessive worry and overprotection by intrusive parents may be costly for teenagers whose developmental goal is to reach a stage of independence. Remember that serious victimization via social media is rare and often limited to teens with certain risk factors. Cyber-bullying is about power imbalance and is used to cause deliberate and repeated harm by embarrassment, exclusion and manipulation. Similar to reality-based old school bullying, those affected by chronic harassment are largely victims as well as bullies and have significant psychiatric disorders. The main difference with online bullying is the exponential power of anonymous bullying that can impact anyone, anytime and anywhere. Unfortunately, 32 percent of teens who spend time online report having experienced some form of cyber-bullying, such as the forwarding of private messages, issuing of threats or rumors or posting embarrassing pictures. Thanks to the Megan Meier Law, in many states such as Missouri, cyber-bullying is a class A misdemeanor, and if an adult bullies a child, then it is a class D felony. Remember that most healthy teenagers are not harmed by appropriate social media use, despite valid concerns for stranger contact, cyber-bullying
and compulsive overuse of electronic social media.

A great myth is that strangers are lurking everywhere on the Internet and exploiting teens on a regular basis via social media sites. Although stranger contact occurs, the detrimental effects are rare, as most teens defend themselves quite well by ignoring unwanted postings. Most teens are online and have social network profiles. Recent reports indicate 97 percent of adolescents use the Internet, while 55 percent actively use online social networking sites. In the Growing Up With Media survey, 15 percent of all youth reported an unwanted sexual solicitation online in the last year, and 33 percent reported having been harassed online in the last year (Ybarra and Mitchell 2008). Recent surveys of youth by the Pew Charitable Trust report 22 percent of teens visit their online social network profile several times a day; 32 percent report being contacted by a stranger; and 7 percent report feeling scared about a stranger contact. Girls use online social network more than boys, have increased likelihood to be contacted by a stranger and are more likely to report the stranger contact made them feel scared or uncomfortable (Lenhart and Madden 2007). The actual amount of real world contact being made between exploitive strangers and teens online is difficult to estimate in research. The supportive and open relationship between supervising parents and their children is the best way to protect kids from making poor decisions. Convey a message to never meet an online stranger in person and to tell you if someone is suggesting they do so.

Parents may consider various filters and spy software available to provide additional supervision on the Internet. Rely on your relationship primarily and be honest about the software you are putting on the computer for monitoring. Talk with your children about the reason for its use. Many teens are able to break passwords, find different access or uninstall spying software. Don’t overreact or give empty threats. Establish a specific duration if you have to take away computer or phone time. It is important to keep in mind that positive findings have also been suggested for teens online in terms of their social supports and identity formation. Work to develop trust and maintain an ongoing and honest dialogue about the concerns of Internet overuse, stranger contact and cyber-bullying.

Lenhart, A. and M. Madden (2007). “Social Networking Websites and Teens.” Pew Charitable Trusts Report.
Ybarra, M. L. and K. J. Mitchell (2008). “How risky are social networking sites? A
comparison of places online where youth sexual solicitation and harassment occurs.”
Pediatrics 121(2): e350-7.