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Teens & Social Media — A Parent Guide to Tik Tok, Instagram, Snapchat

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Dr. Meg Meeker

Every parent of a teen in America is asking these questions. And every parent is trying to keep up with social and digital media’s changing landscape. It seems that every year brings another app or social media site for your child to become obsessed with.

Last year, Tik Tok surpassed Facebook and Twitter as teens’ third top-visited media site behind Instagram and Snapchat. The video platform has taken teens by storm and during COVID-19 has become even more popular.

You might find your teen’s digital media use overwhelming. You can’t keep up with the latest apps and trends, so you’ve pulled back from monitoring this area of your child’s life altogether. Parents, please don’t do this.

One of the most important things you need to understand about social media and your teen is that you can parent your teen in this area of her life. In fact, you must. It is imperative that parents get over the fear of taking charge of their kids’ social media use. Many conscientious parents fear their children will miss out, hate them, rebel, feel like the odd kid in their class, etc., if you put limits on when and how they use digital devices, but none of this is a good reason to opt-out of taking control.

Social media has been linked to a number of problems in teens, namely anxiety, depression, obesity, and risky behavior. Your teen is not able to parent himself in this area. He will scroll through his phone all night if you don’t put boundaries on screen time and digital media use, so it up to you to ensure your child’s mental and physical well-being remain intact.

Focus on quantity and quality.

The most common question I hear from parents about social media is how much screen time is too much? At the very least, don’t allow your child to be on her phone during mealtimes or for one hour before bed. As far as the exact amount of time a teen can spend online each day—the answer is less clear cut. 

In the past, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has set a strict two-hour limit for teens and screen time. 

Most recently, however, the AAP has determined it’s difficult to set general time limits for screen time considering how integrated our lives are with digital media. Instead, they suggest focusing on the quality of the media your child is consuming.

What apps does your child use? What websites does he regularly visit? If you don’t know, find out. Determine what apps, sites, and social media outlets are helpful for your child and which ones are hurtful. What mood is he in after being on social media versus watching a nature show or taking a virtual tour of a museum? How does your daughter talk about herself and her body image after being online for an afternoon versus reading a book for a few hours?

You will probably be able to notice what is helping your child online and what is hurting. Do what helps.

Be nosey and stay in the know.

Do not allow social media to be private. Your child’s journal is private; not his internet use. Everything your teen views on social media should be visible to you. Parents need to know if their kids are being bullied, sent sexts, or anything else that can harm them.

There are excellent resources available to help keep your child safe online. Common Sense Media reviews and rates apps based on their safety and relevance to children. You can also set restrictions on how your child uses certain apps. For example, Tik Tok now has a feature that allows parents to set limits on how long their child uses the app if she can receive direct messages, and what content she can watch.

Focus on your own behavior.

What are your social media and screen time behaviors? Are you constantly checking Facebook, texting friends, posting on Instagram? Your child will notice your behavior and follow suit. If you try to put limits on your teen’s digital use but fail to put limits on your own, your teen will not be motivated to stick to the boundaries you’ve put in place for him. Monitor your own behavior as much as your child’s.

Parenting your teen during the digital age is an incredible challenge but keep your eye on the enormous long-term benefits. The last thing any good parent wants to hear their 25-year-old son or daughter say is, “Why didn’t you protect me?”

Kids who grow up with limited social media use don’t miss out on anything and gain the benefits of better mental and physical health. You have the power to give this to them.

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