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Five Crucial Conversations for Children Using Social Media

Social Media icons on iPhone
Social Media icons on iPhone

The parents and guardians of the youth I work with often ask me how to monitor or restrict their child’s use of social media. Though most social networking sites (e.g., Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat) require users to be a minimum of 13 years old, it seems that often younger children are finding ways to access social media, and even when it is not allowed in the home.

Children and parents alike are becoming increasingly aware of both the benefits and risks of engaging with social media. Social media provides youth with more opportunities to socialize with friends and greater access to learning opportunities (O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011). However, there are also several risks involved including security and privacy issues, safety issues and the impact that social media use is having on mental health (see our previous blog post by Librado and Bradley Youth Social Networking and Mental Health).

So how do parents/guardians reduce the risks involved with their child’s social media use, while still allowing them to explore the many benefits? My advice is communication. Communicating these five ideas will help towards ensuring safe and appropriate social media use:

1. “I will monitor your use.”

Monitoring a child’s social media use is related with benefits including higher school performance and more positive social behaviours (Gentile, Nathanson, Rasmussen, Reimer & Walsh, 2012; Padilla-Walker, Coyne & Collier, 2016). It is also worth noting that monitoring media use results in better results compared to restricting media use (Gentile, Nathanson, Rasmussen, Reimer & Walsh, 2012). Monitoring behaviours might include viewing movies, online videos, and television shows together, requesting that your child ask permission before playing certain video games or accessing certain sites (e.g., Facebook), "following" your child on social media platforms and reviewing browser histories.

2. “THINK before you post/tweet/snap/share photos.”

Though it might be hard for a youth to think about how their posted photos will reflect on them in the future, you might ask your child to consider the potential audience of posts; if they don’t want their friends, classmates, teachers, and family members to see it, don’t post it or send it to anyone. And there are laws that can apply when sharing photos of a sexual nature (see this  Kids Help Phone article for more information).

3. “Tell me if you see anything online that makes you uncomfortable”

It is so important to keep the lines of communication open. Dr. Karen MacLeod’s blog Would your children let you know if they were in trouble? discusses some of the ways to do just that.

4. “Only accept friends and followers that you know "in real life" (i.e., in person)."

About one quarter of youth say that they have had a bad experience on Facebook, and a quarter of these bad experiences involve unwanted contact, often from strangers (Christofides, Muise & Desmarais, 2012). The advice to only accept requests from actual family and friends not only protects your children, but could protect your computer from damaging viruses and hacking.

5. “Avoid giving out personal information (such as your location or personal telephone number) over social media.”

Researchers have identified that the need for popularity often drives youth to provide personal information on social media (Christofides, Muise & Desmarais, 2009). This suggests that it might be more useful to have conversations about why your child is sharing information rather than the potential privacy consequences. Talking about your child’s desire for popularity may help you learn more about your child and their social media use than simply discussing social media posts.

Parents are more likely than ever to use social media themselves. In fact, 83% of parents now have their own social media account(s) (Duggan, Lenhart, Lampe & Ellison, 2015). This suggests that parents are learning about social media, becoming more active on it and monitoring their child’s use through their own profiles and accounts. It’s also more likely that parents can acknowledge that their child(ren) find ways to “work around the rules,”  (by creating multiple accounts, using social media at friends’ homes, and limiting what you can see). As educated as parents are becoming about social media, it seems that the next generation has the “upper hand” when it comes to understanding technology. This is why communication is so important. While, you can’t possibly know what your child is doing on the internet 24/7, having the lines of communication open makes it more likely for your child to engage with social media safely and appropriately, and turn to you if they run into trouble.

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