How do I protect my teen on social media?

| 15 minutes | Media Contact: University Communications


Nearly all teenagers in the U.S. use social media. How is it impacting mental health? And what are some steps people can take to help lessen the harm of social media on kids?

Sarah Domoff, associate professor of psychology at Central Michigan University, answers some of the most asked questions surrounding how to talk to your child about safe social media use, how to monitor their social media use, cyberbullying, and some of the positive effects of teen social media use.



Adam: Nearly all teenagers in the US use social media. How is it impacting their mental health? And what are some steps that we can take to help lessen the harm of social media on kids? Welcome to The Search Bar. You've got questions. Let's find some answers. Bypass Google and slide up to The Search Bar instead as Central Michigan University's amazing team of experts help answer some of the Internet's most asked questions. I'm your host, Adam Sparkes, and on today's episode, we're searching for answers on how to help teenagers positively and safely navigate social media. Sarah Domoff, Associate Professor of Psychology at Central Michigan University is here to help us do just that. Hi, Sarah. 

Sarah: Hello. 

Adam: Thanks for coming. It's good to see you. 

Sarah: Good to see you. Thanks for having me.

Adam: How many Facebook friends do you have? 

Sarah: I try not to go on Facebook anymore. 

Adam: Alright. I don't even know how many I have either. <laugh> 

Sarah: Facebook's old news now. 

Adam: I was trying to be, it's, it is? Tell that to my mom. What we know you for, what area of research you're known for is kind of, you're a child psychologist, specifically, to be clear, is kind of screen time and, and social media. So today we're gonna talk a little bit about the relationship that I guess, parents and kids have with social media. 

Sarah: Social media is such an integral part of everyone's lives today, especially adolescents. And so, a lot of my research and, and the collaborations I have really focus on how do we promote the benefits of social media use. Like, how do we help people get, you know, the good stuff from connecting with others online and reduce the risks? And because social media has grown so quickly and there really isn't a guidebook, you know, we're trying to catch up. 

Adam: Technology is moving a lot faster than science is. It feels like science is kind of in this, is this, it's not a very advantageous situation to be in because science has a lot more checks and balances than getting the next new thing out to market. Right? Because if it sells, it's gonna hit the market immediately. And how fast it grows is gonna be determined by consumption. Whereas for a scientist, it's...slower. The pace is a lot slower, right? 

Sarah: Yeah. And so one of the main points I make to parents and to teachers and, and to youth themselves is, when something new comes out, do some research, try to understand what the risks are. How is this different from other social media, for example? 

What should I talk to my teen about before they use social media?

Adam: All kids are different. All parents are different. But, they're 14, they're 15, they're 16, they're 12, whatever it is, they're gonna be allowed some access, presumably through a personal device. What's the pregame for you as a family? Like, how do you prepare for that yourself, and how do you make sure that the child's prepared for the things that they're going to start interacting with? 

Sarah: You have access to the internet. You can see anything. And so if you make this assumption that they may come into contact with things that you don't want them to see, how do you structure the conversation? So, this is what you do when you come across that, this is how we can talk about it. This is how you can set up your privacy settings so that you're not in touch or in contact with people that may not be good for you. What would indicate to you that this social media isn't working out for you? Like going online is really creating more problems than good. What are some signs? And I think having that conversation, opening the door to that kind of creates an open environment to have that discussion. Some of the best recommendations for social media use involve setting limits around the timing. So, if we can prevent phones or social media being used after bedtime or in the bedroom, that's really important. And then also helping teens scaffold what they wanna see on social media. So, for teens who are at risk for mental health concerns, and disordered eating, they may come into contact with media, social media, content that promotes self-harm, disordered eating and so forth. 

How can parents learn about the different social media platforms?

Adam: How important is it for me as a parent to like, at least kind of get on there for a little bit and go, oh, this is what this is about? Is there a value? 

Sarah: As much as I study the harmful side of technology, I love technology. And I think we can use technology to better, have a better relationship with technology. And so there are so many shortcuts that parents can take when it comes to just getting a quick overview of what's new with this app, for example. So, Common Sense Media is a great resource online that reviews all these new apps of videos, video games, YouTube channels. And so there are ways that parents can like feasibly like, you know, in not too much effort, keep informed of new social media or what the risks and benefits are. And then, you know, having that balance of being an open door to talk about these things. You wanna learn and understand, but you also have certain lines that you won't cross. And I think that's important. 

How do I talk to my teen about safe social media use?

Adam: As a parent. And specifically trying to have a conversation with a child about what is okay and what isn't okay to share. How do you broach that? How do you draw those lines? It feels like a little bit like, but not at all, like setting a, a curfew or you're allowed to go this far. You're allowed to be at, you know, the like, kind of like, where can your kids physically be? How late can they be out? Like those feel like rules that are tangible, but like, what do you say online? What do you show online feels sometimes a little bit more ethereal? Like, how do you broach that with kids? 

Sarah: We want to make sure teens and adults understand that what you share online is data that you are providing to companies that they can use to try to sell you content or to learn more about who you are to tailor content to your potential, for you to purchase. So, I think helping everyone understand that what you post is not private and can be used to profit off of you is a very important concept that should be conveyed. We all make mistakes, right? And teens will likely make mistakes in their social interactions, and that can happen online. And so having a conversation with your teen or your child about what do you do when you post something that you regret, or that may have caused harm to someone, we don't want you to do that. 

Obviously, mistakes happen where, you know, teens are impulsive, they're still developing. So, how do you address that after the fact? Maybe you shared something that you shouldn't have shared. How do you take it down and how do you apologize to someone that you may have hurt? And I think it also is important for parents to talk to teens about what do you do when you see someone else who's being bullied online or being targeted online? Don't be a silent bystander. How can we create communities online that are safe, accepting? And if they can't be that way and you've tried to change it, how do you leave a certain platform or following a certain group of people that aren't benefiting you? Again, with the advice related to seeing content that can be harmful, I would just assume that your team may make a mistake online and wanna take back what they've posted or shared. Help them know that you can apologize for that. You can try to take it down. And so being able to provide a supportive environment for them to talk about those experiences is really critical. 

How should I monitor my child’s social media?

Adam: How much should you be monitoring? Like, where's that line? Right? Between monitoring and snooping. Because it feels like there's a level of snooping that once trust is broken, I assume that it’s more negative than good at certain point, right? Especially depending on the age of the kid. 

Sarah: If your teen, for example, your child, was on social media a lot and then all of a sudden gets really upset when social media is broached, or you ask 'em about what they're looking at on Instagram, like their favorite people, if they start to have a negative reaction and get really upset about talking about their social media use, that may hint to you that maybe something happened or it stopped being fun and enjoyable anymore. And maybe you can have a conversation about that. I mean, I would highly encourage having conversations continuously about what your child is doing online and what they're liking, and maybe like, how do you cope with stress online? And I think just saying, just like we have problems with our friends in, you know, daily life face-to-face, this can happen online too. 

And it can be even more distressing because it's there and you can always check it and review it. So how do we cope with that? And just kind of normalizing that. Obviously, for someone under the age of 13 parents should definitely be monitoring what they're doing online because they're still learning how to navigate the internet and online interactions. Right? And so many social media companies require at least age 13, but we know youth are on social media and they're on chat rooms and, and so forth at a younger age. So, monitoring more so at younger ages, I would highly recommend when they get to be over 13, that's when it can get really challenging, because there are some things that we want teens to be able to explore on their own without the fear of, you know, sharing it with their parents. 

And so, I think making sure that they feel, for example, if they wanna explore their identity or ask questions that they may not feel comfortable asking their parents in safe ways online, we should encourage them to start that individuation process and start to clarify who they are and so forth. And for some teens, it's not really safe for them to talk about those types of issues with their parents. So, you have to walk that balance, that line with respecting autonomy as the teen gets older. Again, having the open door being, "Hey, you know, if something happens online or you feel unsafe online, I'm here for you. I wanna talk to you about that, and we're gonna problem solve so you can still get the benefits from your phone. Use your social media use without feeling unsafe or stressed out by what you're seeing online." 

So, those are just some approaches that we recommend. I mean, I wouldn't recommend unless your child is in serious risk for harm to themselves or others, breaching their privacy, but definitely let them know. I would let your teen know if you are going to be looking at what they post. Let them know that, you know, I have access to this and I'll be looking at this 'cause I wanna make sure that you're safe online. You know, if you are gonna do that. I also don't think it needs to entirely be just the parents. So, helping teens learn how to talk to their friends about what they're doing online, if they're concerned for their well-being, helping teachers and coaches. I think everyone involved in a teen's life should be able to have conversations about this just like we would expect for other aspects of a child's life, about who their friends are and how to handle conflict. Making sure that a teen has someone that they feel comfortable speaking with about concerns online, whether that's a parent or someone else is really important. 

What can schools do about cyberbullying? 

Adam: It seems like schools have become the sort of touch point for cyberbullying. How are we seeing parents interact with school systems and how are school systems having to interact with social media as just kind of part of the normal social interaction that kids, you know, 20 years ago were just having in hallways. 

Sarah: Oftentimes parents will go to schools when they find out that their child is being cyberbullied by another classmate because it's so important that youth feel safe at school. And so schools are obligated to create a safe environment. And so a lot of what we hear is that when there's a cyberbullying issue, schools get involved because either it's related to the technology that they're providing youth or they're doing this while they're at school, or the cyberbullying can occur at school through people's use, through the students' use of phones and so forth. 

Adam: Yeah. So, I mean, they could be happening completely outside of the hours of, you know, eight to four or whatever. As if, I don't know what time school is at. If my kids were only gone until four. <laugh> But if it's not in that six or seven hours of school, these teachers, these administrators are still contending with the conversations that occur because it's just, the spillover is kind of, it's just natural. It had mine as well have happened at school as kids aren't differentiating the relationship. They don't go home and get a break if there's a problem. 

Sarah: Right. And I think with especially harmful experiences with cyberbullying, the spreading of images or content can happen so rapidly across a school. And so even if it may have started after school, you can see that content throughout the school day. You know what I mean? So, it doesn't go away when you have your phone with you. And so that's also important 'cause it could interfere with a child being able to be present. 

Adam: We don't seem to be keeping up with the digitization of communication very well as a society at all. 

Sarah: There's so much catching up that needs to be done at a state level and federal level and, you know, we're not even talking about AI yet. But, you know, there's so much related to policy and legislation that needs to happen to address some of these concerns or at least provide a framework for education across the lifespan, really around misinformation online being safe online and how to handle, some of the negative experiences that you may have online. 

What are some positive effects of teen social media use? 

Adam: There are positive things that are still happening on social media. It's not entirely negative. Right? 

Sarah: During the pandemic, I was part of a research study that looked at positive online experiences and negative online social experiences. And what we found was that youth reported more positive online interactions. And that was linked to lower degrees of loneliness. And so for teens that can learn how to use social media and access, and interact with communities online that are beneficial to them, that can be a lifesaver and can provide them with a great wealth of resources. How do you gravitate towards things that lift you up and are positive for you? And how do you make sure to not engage with content that is harmful is a lesson to learn. And part of that is just helping teens realize that they can choose what they see online, they can choose who they want in their circle. And if something's not working often they don't have to engage with it. 

What are some good social media resources for parents? 

Adam: What are some other resources that are available to people? 

Sarah: I recommend That's a great resource. They review a variety of types of platforms as well as have guides for parents, and they have material for teachers. Take It Down is a website that was put out by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. And that is a website where you can go, if there's an image of you that's being shared when you were, you know, that was made when you were a child so that you can have content taken down of you that you don't want up there, obviously. So for more extreme situations like that, as well as the Internet Crimes Complaint Center through the FBI, there are great cyberbullying resources online. I think it's There are a lot of websites and I'm happy to share them with you and to see if you wanna post with the podcast. 

Adam: Sarah, thanks so much for coming and talking to me about social media use. I appreciate your time and your expertise. 

Sarah: Thank you for having me. 

Adam: No problem. Thanks for stopping by The Search Bar. Be sure to subscribe or follow so that you don't have to search for the next episode. 

The views and opinions expressed in these episodes are strictly those of the host and guest speaker.