Updated: Dec 8, 2022
In today’s world, as many as half of US teenagers aged 13-17 say they are online “almost constantly”, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.
Whilst this might be alarming for older generations, a lot of research shows that teenagers really value connecting online with friends and family and sharing news, experiences, events, and memes.
But, despite the wonders, knowledge, opportunities and freedom of the internet that we all benefit from, teens can feel some of the following issues:
Other people's lives seem better
They may have unrealistic expectations of daily life
They may feel addicted to checking phones and social media platforms
They may be affected by cyber bullying, rumours or being left out of chats and plans
They may get unwanted attention online and be targeted by fake accounts
They may be exposed to sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism online
They will likely be exposed to unrealistic body expectations or distorted ideas of sex and relationships
Bullying and conflicts online can lead teens to feeling left out, and may feel sadness and may experience depression and anxiety. Girls are especially at risk of depression symptoms during the teenage years before teens became digital natives. Research suggests that girls are twice as likely to feel symptoms of depression from being on social media. Being bullied has been found by researchers to increase the odds of becoming a bully and make it more engaging in substance misuse in adulthood. Sadly, in America, over 5000 suicides have been linked to bullying.
So, as a parent, how can you help your teen?
First of all, it’s good to be aware of the risks that they can face, here are some possible threats as described by author, Kimberly Wolf, in her book Talk to Her.
1) Fake profiles or “finsta”
Some teens make a fake profile so they can communicate with someone else without them realising or observe their behaviour online. Also be careful that no one sets up an account to impersonate your teen
2) Posting or sharing photos of others without permission
Posting a photo without someone’s permission might mean that it was private or portrays a young person in a way that they don’t want to seen by others, it can also be a form of bullying.
3) Posting personal information
Teens may not be aware that posting pictures of their home address or other sensitive information can put them at risk.
4) Hidden stranger danger
There is plenty of scope to meet new people online but it may be difficult to know if a new person is who they appear to be, especially for younger people. Sadly, girls are particularly at risk of being asked to share photos or suggestive photos with strangers online.
5) Fear of Missing Out “FOMO”
Events may be posted online that are real time which someone might not be invited to, or group chats might be created that exclude specific members. Teens may feel excluded and left out.
6) Too much screen time
Whilst this is no surprise to any parent it's also a physial health issue. There’s evidence that looking at a screen just before sleep is harmful due to blue light and may not allow the brain and body to wind down to be ready for sleep
Popularised by the TV show Catfish, this is where a teen may think they are having a relationship with someone online, but they may actually be someone else and may be using fake pictures. Signs to look out for is when the person avoids video calls, voice calls and meeting up in person.
8) Unsolicited pictures
Sending unsolicited pics is now a crime in the UK, also described as cyberflashing. See article here.
What can you do as a parent to protect your child?
1) Working with your child to be smart about their social media usage
Not all social media use is bad, you can help them to think about their goals with their online “presence”.
For instance, you can have a conversation with them about what kind of presence they want to create online, do they want to create a blog? If they are older, do they want to create a LinkedIn page? Ask them to think about what kind of content they want to create and who they want to share it with and why? This can help them to be both intentional and mindful about what they are posting.
If you don’t use social media as a parent, you don’t have to be trying to be an expert on the social media platforms, but a supportive conversation in helping them to think through what social media they want to use and why be a helpful and supportive presence and also reduce the chances of them conducting all their online activities without you being aware of them.
It’s very easy for teens to get caught up in creating a TikTok video for thousands of views, without thinking about if that’s the type of presence they want to create long term. As young teenagers they may not consider the long term consequences of creating certain content.
Here’s some do’s and don’ts about what to say to your teen as suggested by author and educator Kimberly Wolf
Things to say to your teen
"How do you use this app? Can you show me? "
"How do you feel about that app or that post?"
"Are you confident they are who they say they are?"
"Tone isn't conveyed on text messages. It might be worth calling them to ask what they meant"
Things to avoid saying:
"Social media is a waste of time"
"You're wasting your life"
“There she goes, always on her phone!'”
"Things were easier in my day we actually met up in person to talk to each other"
[About peer conflict or being left out of events] "don't be so sensitive"
Remember that teens can feel othered when parents express their confusion and disregard for social media, as for some teenagers this is a big part of their social lives and identity.
For example, in a recent Buzz Feed article about What adults get wrong about teens, one teen said:
"I hate that they always complain about us being on our phones. We literally have never known anything different! We were born and raised in a technologically advanced age, and all they do is complain how it is ruining humanity. Okay? But who ruined the Earth? And who elected our current president?"
We recommend Kimberly Wolf's book Talk to Her if you want to learn more. Also, look out for an upcoming webinar on How to Talk about Cyberbullying with your children and protect them from harm.