Social Media, Internet and Youth: What Parents Need to Know

As mental health professionals, we've come to view social media use as a modern developmental task in which all youth should become proficient. Most teens can be taught to use social media responsibly just like most learn to drive responsibly. As with driving, it takes education, supervised practice, and reasonable limits to build these skills. Some will have fender benders along the way, but in many cases they can be seen as learning opportunities. With parental guidance and supervision, major "collisions" can be prevented. Banning your teen from the internet and social media out of fear of some looming disaster is like banning them from driving out of fear that they may have a catastrophic accident. Teaching them to use the internet with appropriate limits will protect them most in the long run.

In our clinic, we often see youth in trouble from using the internet and/or social media improperly. Most commonly are when teens are caught sexting (sending graphic messages or pictures) to others. Some get into trouble for posting explicit videos and others for disclosing personal information that leads to them being contacted by unscrupulous adults. The worst cases are the ones we all fear for children, where they arrange to meet up with someone they met online, who they mistakenly trusted (though this is somewhat uncommon).

Parents should understand that in the vast majority of cases, youth are using social media for harmless socializing. It parallels the "hangouts" that many adults were into as teens. What can parents do to ensure their children are using social media and the internet safely? We've seen a variety of parental approaches to monitoring social media. Some of the more successful tips are:

Education.Take the time to teach your children about the benefits of using the internet and social media. Teach them how to find information, to connect with family and friends. As they age, teach them how to maintain their online image, just as you'd teach them how to dress for various occasions and weather, they should understand that they create an image of themselves through their online presence that shapes how others perceive them. This image could affect their lives in countless ways as the age.

Youth need to understand the dangers of social media and internet and how to respond when faced with problematic situations, such as cyber-bullying, harassment, identity theft, and solicitation. They also need to know how things work. Just as you'd teach your child to change a tire or call AAA, teach them how to make minor repairs to common computer/internet issues, like viruses. Help them be informed users.

Implement reasonable limits. Just like any other privileges, parents should set healthy parameters that will model boundaries, respect, and self-regulation. For instance, many families set rules such as turning off cell phones at the dinner table, or not texting while talking with someone in person.

When learning to drive, parents rarely turn over the keys at 16 and say "have fun!" Instead, we put parameters on driving, based on age and maturity. The same should be true with the internet and social media. Many parents use programs such as "Net Nanny" to monitor and limit their children's use of the internet.Many parents share accounts with their teens so anything the teens download will also be downloaded to the parents' phone.Having a phone is a privilege. Inform your child that as part of the privilege, they are consenting to regular phone checks, including checking the downloads, texts and pics- especially for ages 16 and younger.

Supervised practice.Keep computers and iPad usage in common areas, not alone in bedrooms.Turn in cell phones every night to parents at bedtime to regulate overnight use.Before unsupervised use of the internet, parents should openly discuss sexuality issues to educate and discuss these issues in a healthy way.

Just like with driving and other developmental tasks, it's not just about parental instruction and responsibility, kids have to make good choices, too. What are danger signs or concerns that may alert you to internet/social media misuse? First, if they seem obsessive in their use of social media and the internet, they may not be adept at regulating their own use yet. Even if for productive uses, if they're on it all the time, they are missing out on other developmentally important activities, like physical activity and in-person socialization. Second, youth who are developing a problem with their internet or social media use often try to hide their use from family members and may isolate themselves from others in order to use it. They may become defensive and try to sneak or conceal their use of certain sites, apps or searches. Third, they may report signs of anxiety about their virtual life, which could reflect cyber-bullying or harassment. They may show signs of depression, such increased irritability or loss of enjoyment in activities they once enjoyed.

The internet and social media have become important tools of modern life. Youth need education, age appropriate limits, and supervised practice in order to develop the necessary skills to safely manage the benefits and risks of this evolving resource. If you are concerned about this process for your child, don't be afraid to seek professional help. Even if brief, meeting with a psychologist or mental health professional to help facilitate these discussions, or to address a mishap could prevent catastrophe down the road.