Parenting Teens in a Virtual World (Part One): 8 Things to Do Before You Give Your Teen Access to Social Media

A sweet friend recently asked me for some advice about how to introduce her 16 year old daughter to the world of social media. Yes, you read that right- her daughter is 16 and does not have social media. Obviously, I should be asking my friend for parenting advice!

But it got me thinking about things we’ve done both right and wrong when it comes to technology use in our family. I am going to break this topic into three different blog posts since there is so much information to cover. In this first one, I will share eight things we did before we ever gave our teens access to social media. Consider this the foundation that everything else is built on. The second post will cover how to navigate the various issues that come along with social media (click here to read Part 2), and the last post will be about things to include in your social media contract (click here for Part 3).

Jeff and I spent countless hours reading articles and talking to friends with older children before our teens ever entered the virtual world. We took our responsibility as parents seriously- and that is where I think we need to start when discussing this topic.

YOU are the parent.

You ARE the parent.

You are the PARENT!

Whichever word you want to emphasize, the fact remains that you are the parent and it is your responsibility to guide and protect your teen through the virtual world. Surely you would not drop them off in a strip joint or at a club with a bunch of strange adults and assume they could handle themselves. (If you would, you can stop reading now because you are not going to like anything I have to say!

That sounds ludicrous to most of us, and yet those are some of dangers- among many- that await our teens in the virtual world. If we pretend they don’t exist, we are putting our head in the sand and our teenagers in danger. This is not an area in which we can afford to shirk responsibility. If your teen wants social media, please, PLEASE commit to being involved, setting limits, watching things you don’t want to watch, keeping communication open, and saying no when necessary. Your teen needs you, even if they won’t admit it. Your role is so important!

Also, I should be honest with you. If it were up to me, our kids would never have gotten phones or texting or social media. Ever. Between the danger and drama and addiction, I would have been happy to pick us all up and move to the Amish country. Fortunately for our kids, Jeff is way cooler than I am, and he was able to convince me that technology- and social media- are likely going to be a part of their lives forever. 

“We have a choice,” he told me. “We can deny them access now and risk them sneaking it behind our backs or having to figure it out on their own in a college atmosphere, or we can choose to navigate this road alongside them, allowing them to make their mistakes with us by their side to guide them, and if necessary, protect them.”

Yeah, I married a good man. I think I’ll keep him.

So anyway, here are eight things we recommend you do BEFORE you give your teen access to social media:

1. WAIT until they are 13… and then wait a little longer.

This is by far the number one suggestion experienced parents give, and many older teens actually agree- delay it as long as you can! Almost all social media platforms require users to be at least thirteen to set up an account, and there are reasons for this. The virtual world has the potential to expose your child to physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual challenges that require great maturity, integrity, and self-control. The older they are when they face these challenges, the less at risk they will be and the more likely they will be to avoid them altogether. 

One friend shared that, of her three children, “the one who waited the longest (before getting social media) is the one with the least amount of social anxiety.” This, by far, is the best thing you can do to protect your teen.  Care about them enough to say NO and wait until they are really ready for what they are getting into.

2. Look at their TIME.  

Since our girls were among the last of their friends to get access to social media, one of the best things we did was talk about how they saw it impacting those around them. Social media seems so glamorous from the outside, and it is easy to feel excluded, like they are the only one who doesn’t have it (validate those feelings; they are very real!). However, if your teen looks a little closer, they will notice how much TIME their friends spend on their phones and how quickly they stop actually talking to one another. Staring at a screen together is not the same as experiencing LIFE together. Use this time before your teen is on social media to help them notice what others are missing out on.

One of my 12th grade small group girls gave up social media over six months ago as part of a challenge by our student pastor. She shared with me that it was surprisingly freeing to let it go- she was less stressed, happier, and suddenly found herself with a lot of free time. The hardest part was actually being around her friends because even when they were all together, she often had no one to talk to since they were all on their phones. It’s ironic that the thing they desperately want in order to connect with friends often keeps them from doing just that.

This probably is not going to stop your teen from becoming attached to his screen, but it might delay it and make it easier for you to step in and reestablish boundaries when he gets out of control. After all, it is always easier to see things in other people than it is to recognize them in ourselves. Having this conversation now will give you something to refer back to down the road.

3. Find out their WHY. 

Talk with them about why they want social media. What are they hoping to get out of it? How do they see themselves using it? What are their expectations and fears? What boundaries do they think are reasonable and important and why? Having this conversation will help you both better understand what areas may create temptations and where to set boundaries. 

As a parent, pay careful attention to their why. The biggest lie of social media is that our worth is connected to what other people think of us. We must constantly, continually, lovingly remind our kids that they are more than the sum of their parts or the sum of their “likes.” Their worth lies in their identity as a child of God and nowhere else. Our teens WILL get sucked into this trap without even realizing it. It is up to us to stand guard, watching for the enemy’s lies, whispering (and sometimes shouting) Truth to our kids. Their “why” helps us know where their insecurities are so we can help guard against them.

4. Show them the Dangers. 

One of the most impactful things we did was to spend 15-20 minutes on several different occasions showing them how easy it is for strangers (and future employers, etc) to gain information about us through social media.                   

  • I started with a “friend” who had private settings, and we scrolled through her posts, pointing out information she was unknowingly giving- where she works, where her kids go to school (based on a sign in the background or a logo on their shirt), what time she picked them up (from the time stamp on a carpool post), what restaurants she liked to eat at (from “locations” or a photo), what her hobbies are, etc. I made a list of what we had learned in 5 minutes and we talked about how easy it is to accidentally give away information we are trying intentionally not to post. 
  • Next, I clicked on a “friend of a friend” (who I didn’t know) and showed them how different privacy settings either allowed or restricted me, as a stranger, access to their information. I chose someone with public settings and we made a list of how much information I was able to gather in 5 minutes just from what they were posting. It was pretty eye opening for all of us! 
  • We also used this as a tool to show how what you post can lead to certain impressions of yourself and why it’s important to be careful. I pulled up profiles of different people they don’t know and asked them to tell me how they perceived them based on the photos they posted. I intentionally picked some of my friends who post selfies of workout pics or suggestive poses so they could see what it really looks like when they don’t actually know the person (I found this didn’t work as well with their friends- they were quick to defend them and see it as attractive and trendy rather than desperate). We looked at photos of married friends who post as though they are single and talked about what impression they are giving off. We looked at teens who shared “emotional” or “rebellious” posts and discussed how that made them a target for predators. 
  • We looked at posts from some of our high school and college-age friends who were using profanity, complaining about a job or teacher, or sharing “funny” (but offensive) memes. We discussed how that might hurt someone’s feelings or affect them being offered a scholarship or a job one day when someone checks their social media to help determine their character. Sure, they were just posting for their “friends,” but what were their posts really conveying? A picture paints a thousand words…
  • If you have Snapchat, it’s great to show them how you can take a screenshot of a “snap” before it disappears, making it no longer “temporary.” If they already have a phone, select an embarrassing photo or scroll through their private texts and screenshot something “personal” they sent (or use yourself as an example), and show them how nothing they send is ever really private or personal. This is a great way to help them see why it is so important not to post or send anything they don’t want the whole world to see. They will forget this lesson (don’t we all?), but it still lays a good foundation.
  • It is also important to address the issue of porn, which unfortunately is prevalent and easily accessible through social media. It will only take you about five minutes using the “Search” tool on Instagram to get an eyeful of things you can’t un-see (and it’s likely some of their friends will post inappropriate things as well). We’ll address this more in the next post, but it must be included here, especially if you have a boy. I don’t recommend actually showing them images, as that just invites temptation. But don’t avoid the topic, either. They need to know they likely WILL encounter it and what to do when that happens, as well as specific ways they can limit their exposure.
  • As I mentioned, we did this on a few different occasions and it definitely made a greater impact than any lectures we gave them about being safe and cautious online. 

5. Talk about HOW.  

What will social media look like in your family? How do they want to represent themselves? How can they use their “voice” for good? How can they avoid attracting unwanted attention? How should they handle it if they receive an inappropriate message or a friend posts something that makes them concerned? How can they keep themselves from growing attached to their phone or drawing their worth from their followers? How can they know when they need to step back?

6. Work on Communication. 

Actually, all of these ideas lay the foundation for great communication! Doing this before they get social media will help you be able to better guide and protect them as they navigate this new virtual world. Be intentional about keeping this communication open- which may mean watching a bunch of stupid videos or making a fool of yourself doing tik-tok videos with them- but it is well worth it! Whatever it takes to keep the lines of communication open, just do it! This is your most valuable tool.

7. Discuss Guidelines and Boundaries. 

Be specific. It is important for your teen to understand that the guidelines and boundaries you put in place are for their good and because you love them. Hopefully you have some of these same boundaries in place for yourself- that will make it a little less painful! In any case, it is extremely important to have boundaries set in place before they begin using social media.  You will use these guidelines to form the basis of your social media/technology contract. We will cover this and suggestions for the contract in the third part of this blog series.

8. Sign a contract. 

Have them sign a contract and be part of choosing the consequences (in advance) if they break their word. There should also be expectations for you- what you agree to do to keep them safe, how you agree to not overreact if they come to you for help, etc. The contract is not an attempt to control them or punish them; it is created for their protection and benefit. It should be signed by both of you and kept somewhere where you both can see it (we put it in a file, and I find myself not enforcing things because I can’t remember what the contract said!).

Hopefully this gives you some things to start thinking about. Feel free to share any other ideas in the comments!

Ready for the next step? Click here for Part 2: Guidelines for Staying Safe, Steady, and Sane On-line!

4 thoughts on “Parenting Teens in a Virtual World (Part One): 8 Things to Do Before You Give Your Teen Access to Social Media

  1. We have discussed this topic in some detail, so no surprises for me here. I confess that I wasn’t as detailed and organized in our approach. But your guidelines are great. You might hit on this in a later blog, but one of our most important rules is to “check it in” every night and at other times. Our charging station is in the living room in our built-ins, and the phones all go there. Just like computer or TV screens, we want them limited in where and when they are used.

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  2. Pingback: Parenting Teens in a Virtual World (Part 2): Guidelines for Staying Safe, Steady, and Sane On-line | Jar full of Manna

  3. Pingback: Parenting Teens in a Virtual World (Part 3): Crafting Your Teen Technology Contract | Jar full of Manna

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