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Ninety-five percent of American teens now have access to smartphones, and you can bet that a 100 percent of those use social networks. What should parents know before this happens? What should they talk about with their teens?

Ninety-five percent of American teens now have access to smartphones, and you can bet your bottom dollar that every last one of them uses those phones to access social media. Instagram. YouTube. Snapchat. Facebook. Reddit. Twitter. Discord. Skype. And, depending on your opinion, every single online gaming platform where you can interact with people. Whether you like it or not, social media is everywhere.

That stuff is like a magnet, so it's no wonder that a 2018 Pew Research Center survey showed that 45 percent of teens say they're online "almost constantly". What kind of impact does this have, though — and should kids and teens really be on social media?

What do teenagers themselves think of social media?

Those teens who believe social media impacts their lives positively give the kinds of reasons you'd expect — these platforms allow them to stay in touch with their family and friends, enable them to talk to people with shared interests, and they provide entertainment. Teens also report that social media helps them keep up to date with the news and find information easily. 

You may be surprised, however, to learn that a fairly meager 30 percent of teens offers such glowing reviews. The biggest portion, 45 percent, is on the fence about whether social media affects their lives positively or negatively. Twenty-four percent (nearly a quarter, y'all!), meanwhile, report a mostly negative impact — something that parents should definitely pay attention to. 

The reasons behind this "downvote" include:

  • Cyber-bullying
  • Rumor spreading
  • Internet addiction
  • Teens seeing things they're not ready for or simply don't want to see, including things of a graphic sexual nature

What parents should know about the benefits and risk of social media

Let's start with the positive impacts of social media — which you, as a parent, may lose sight off if your teen is constantly glued to their computer or phone. 

  • Research has shown that using social media can boost communication skills and even technical abilities.
  • Because the internet makes it possible to socialize with people all over the world, social media allows teens and adults alike to discuss shared interests (something that can be really, really nice for, say, a teen whose "IRL" friends just don't share their passion for building model ships or early-edition Spider-Man comics).
  • Social media can give your teenager a chance to play a more active role in the community by facilitating things like raising money for charity and finding out about local music festivals and political events. For the skeptic in you, yes, some teens absolutely do use social media in this way!
  • Teens further find a platform to express themselves creatively during a crucial point in their identity formation. They get to share their interests and their creations — whether in the form of drawings, music, short stories, coding skills, or anything else — and get feedback from more experienced people. 

There's a darker side, too, however, as almost all teens who use social media will inevitably have noticed. 

  • Forty-nine percent of teens have been exposed to "people being hateful, racist, or sexist" in online gaming experiences alone, research reveals. This kind of exposure can range from drive-by nasty comments that can nonetheless have a negative impact, to statements directed specifically at your teen. That's where it descends into cyber-bullying, which can leave just as much of a mark as in-person bullying.
  • Sexual predators are on the extreme end of the "bad" spectrum that every parent fears, but they can and do lurk around online places where teens congregate, whether it's in games or on Facebook. Sexual abuse can take place on the internet in the form of webcam use, but a small portion of teenagers may also end up meeting a predator in person. 
  • During a time in life where young people start being interested in dating and sex, so-called "sexting" — messages with sexual content — can also pose a real danger, both in terms of the potential for a teen to be pressurized into sending such messages and the consequences hitting that "send" button can have. When a teen's explicit messages end up doing their rounds through a peer group, it can be extremely embarrassing, not to mention that it can get them into trouble with school and even the law. 

Social media: What you should talk about with your teen

If your teenager has internet access, they're probably already on social media; whether they admit it or not. It's just as important to talk to them about this online world as it is to talk about things like road safety or healthy nutrition. Your teen has probably enjoyed some of the positive aspects of social media, but they'll also inevitably encounter that darker side at one point. Forewarned is forearmed. 

Here's what definitely to discuss, ideally before your teen hits the web. 

1. People on the internet lie

The internet is an ideal platform for spreading lies. That includes fake news, which can give teens some really weird ideas about the world, but also predators. First, "that boy from the school across town" may seem totally cool, but then when they want to meet up with you, it turns out that he's really a 50-year-old creep. 

2. Cyberbullies and trolls

Under a bridge? Nope, trolls' natural habitat is the world wide web, and cyber bullies are never far behind. Some are "randos", strangers you'll never meet in real life and who don't have a clue who you are, but others may be that mean classmate hiding behind a veil of anonymity to say you look bad in one of your Instagram photos, or even that the world would be better if you weren't in it. Minorities, like LGBT teens, black teens, or disabled teens, may be especially vulnerable, but nobody is exempt. 

Your teen should know that they can use the block function, make a new account, or stop using a social platform, as well as that they can report bullying to you and in some cases even the police. 

3. Your child may see stuff they just weren't ready for

The myriad of inappropriate things lurking on the web and social media can seemingly jump up out of nowhere. From the obligatory "d*ck pic" sent by that "nice guy" from martial arts, to homophobic comments (see "cyberbullies and trolls"), to graphic information, your child will almost definitely come across these things sooner or later, so you should prepare them for the possibility. They may also actively look for, well, let's just say "inappropriate content". Let your teen know that they can still come to you to discuss things that upset them, even if they were breaking the rules. 

4. Your child may put information out there they really regret later

Once it's online, it's probably not going away. Even if you delete it, people might have taken a screenshot and could continue to spread your picture or post. That can have consequences now, as well as later. 

5. Your teen may BE a cyberbully

Never assume that your child "would never do that". They could be just getting revenge on that one person who posted nasty comments, in their mind, without really realizing they've turned into a cyberbully. Teenagers might bully people online because they have issues at school and online is the only place where they can take out their anger. You should also talk to your teen about this, so that they know it isn't really the right thing to do. 

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