I’ve interviewed middle school and high school students about secrets they wish parents knew about their online use, but don’t necessarily want to tell them. These are three of the secrets students shared:
- “When you take away one device at night, you might not realize how many devices we still have with us.” Access to smartphones has shifted communication for teens, and self-regulation can be difficult. The fear of missing out (FOMO) can create an overwhelming desire to be connected — in fact, according to 2015 Pew Research, 94 percent of teens go online daily, which isn’t surprising, and 24 percent of teens feel as though they are online constantly. Encouraging kids to find effective ways to self-regulate is sometimes about getting their buy-in — that is, encouraging them to reflect on the impact their daily online habits are having on their personal, academic and extracurricular goals.
[Melinda Gates spent her career in technology. She wasn’t prepared for its effect on her kids.]
- “Many of us have a fake Instagram account.” A parent recently told me she had full control over her ninth-grade son’s online interactions. She explained that he didn’t even know the password for his Instagram account, and that if he wanted to post something, he had to go through her. I quietly surmised that her son might be hiding some of his online activities from her. If kids are online, parents are usually more effective acting as mentors than as micromanagers. Having open-ended conversations rather than wielding authoritative control enables kids to build the critical thinking skills needed to make smarter decisions online and in-real-life. For some kids, a finsta (“fake” Instagram) or a rinsta (“real” Instagram) might be where they feel they can share their raw, authentic feelings, even though they don’t always realize that anything shared online has the potential for a greater audience, amplified consequences or longer shelf-life. It’s up to parents to find a way in, not through coercion, but through conversation.
- “If we are passionate or angry about something, we take it to social media.” Young people want their opinions to be heard. Many tweens and teens find their online communities are engaging, interactive and responsive. A message or Snapchat sent to a friend can result in an instant reply, and something posted to a group chat or online profile can create the opportunity for community-level conversation and engagement. Responses from friends and followers make kids feel heard and listened to, which is often critically important for those who simply want acknowledgment and validation (this isn’t, of course, much different for adults). At the same time, we know that teens’ and tweens’ brains are still developing and that kids often lack impulse control and the ability to understand the long-term consequences of decisions made in moments of anger and frustration. Parents who empathize with the challenges their children face can help them devise smarter, healthier ways to self-filter before posting.
And here are several things they’d like their parents to do:
- “Talk with us about the apps we like to use and why. Most of you have no idea about our world.” One of my students recently told me how a group of nine of her friends from school were using family tracking apps to monitor one another. When she and a few of her friends wanted to hang out or were all in the same place, there would be a continual stream of social pressure, guilt and shame from others who weren’t invited (“Why are you hanging out without us? Guess you think you’re too cool for us?”). Her parents had no idea that some of their teen daughter’s friends were essentially stalking her. Many apps have geolocation features, and parents don’t realize the new level of potential pressure (and danger) these on-all-the-time experiences can bring. Ultimately, my student removed herself from the tracking group when she decided the stress she was experiencing wasn’t worth it. A tip? Ask your kids which apps they spend the most time on (or check their phone’s data usage). Download those apps and spend time learning the ins and outs.
- “Help us keep an eye on who is following us.” Even when kids keep social media accounts private or provide restricted access, anyone can request to follow or friend them and potentially have full access to their postings. In a world where likes, loves, comments and follower counts have become a barometer for popularity, teens might find it difficult to turn away potential followers, even when they should. Parents and educators should encourage teens and tweens to curate access to their accounts.
- “Accept that there are lots of good things on social media — it is not all bad stuff.” Social media isn’t good or bad — it is a new form of communication and language that adults need to learn, because pretending it doesn’t exist generally isn’t a wise approach. When adults express genuine curiosity and compassion about the positive experiences associated with online interactions, kids are more likely to confide in them about the intertwining nature of their online and in-real-life experiences. Positive, supportive online communities can make a world of difference to kids who have moved to a new area, or who don’t feel particularly connected to their school community, or who aren’t able to attend school because of illness.
- “Talk with us about sexting and healthy relationships in a way that isn’t awkward.” Tweens and teens who are socializing and navigating relationships online and in-real-life face challenges unheard of in previous generations. Some might mistakenly confuse the sending of explicit photos and messages with a level of intimacy that might not exist, and others might not fully understand the long-term social, emotional and legal consequences of sending, sharing and storing explicit photos (parents, check your local laws). According to the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project, teens may benefit from conversations focused on promoting the skills needed to develop and maintain healthy relationships.
If we want teens and tweens to adopt better habits and healthier choices online and in-real life, we have to change how we talk about the social world, both online and in-real-life. In the end, promoting social media wellness is all about developing awareness and encouraging open communication, because teens who perceive their parents are unaware are less likely to seek their parents’ guidance and support in times of need — and that’s not a secret we want them to keep.