As any parent of teens will tell you, social media and technology are a part of a teen’s everyday life. From texting to snapping, teens are wholly immersed in a media world that still feels foreign to parents of our generation. And, if you are like me, it can often feel like you are struggling to keep up with the latest apps and research on how much screen time is too much.
It can be exhausting to manage your teen’s online life and to keep tabs on what they are posting on social media apps. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with friends and other parents who have declared their hatred for social media apps, texting and online communities.
And, some of my friends have even taken it a step further: I know several parents who have simply denied their teens access to online platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat.
As much as I respect my friends and their parenting decisions, I’m often baffled by the parent who bans social media from their teen’s social life.
Because I am a parent who loves interacting with my teens on social media.
When my son was thirteen, we had a discussion about whether he wanted to create an online profile. He admitted that he didn’t think he was ready for the responsibility and I was proud of him for acknowledging his hesitation. However, once he hit the halls of high school, his hesitation vanished. He quickly realized that his friends and classmates were enmeshed in social media and he asked if he could join, too.
After setting some basic ground rules, he joined Instagram.
And he quickly sent me a request to follow him.
In the year since he joined IG, I have been shocked by how much I’ve learned about my teen. He is open, honest and funny and I’ve been amused to see his interests take shape based on the pages he follows. He regularly asks me if I’ve seen his posts and often makes me laugh with his daily silly Instagram stories. He is engaging and age appropriate and I love that we can connect on a different level day to day online. We talk about the people he follows and we are always excited when we find a page we can both enjoy together.
Of course, I also take it as an opportunity to leave funny comments on his posts and his friends are amused that I’m the mom who interacts with them on Instagram. I’m not sure he loves that part, though. #SorryNotSorrySon
When I hear a parent disparaging social media and announcing that their teen isn’t allowed to participate, their reasoning is usually centered around the negative aspects of social media. A parent’s fear that their child will interact with a stranger or their worry that their child will share too much personal information is usually the answer I receive when I ask a parent about their decisions.
But, what if access to strangers and online communities isn’t a bad thing?
What if, by sharing personal information with another teen across the country, your teen finds a support system he might not have otherwise developed if not for reaching out in community Facebook groups or by following an Instagram hashtag?
Instagram hashtags like #KindComments, #CaptureConfidence and #RoleModel are filled with inspiring pictures of real teens sharing their real struggles. It’s impossible to not be moved or filled with hope when you read some of the posts that accompany these hashtags. Allowing your teen to seek out Instagram users who promote kindness, love and acceptance will help them shape their perspective on the world.
I am not at all advocating that your teen should blast her personal information to every stranger on the internet. Not by any means. I am, however, challenging parents to look at social media in a different light: sometimes, teens are dealing with heavy issues like sexuality, depression and social injustice and knowing that there are other teens struggling with the same problems can make a teen feel less alone.
And, I also believe that teens need to learn to self-regulate online. We can’t be behind their shoulder 24/7, watching their every move on social media. We have to help them learn to set boundaries and the only way to do that is to give them freedom to explore the good, the bad and the ugly of social media.
Just as we taught them when they were little to be wary of strangers in public, we need to help our teens develop the same warning voices in their head when they are online.
We also have to recognize that, in a lot of cases, the good outweighs the bad for teens when it comes to online relationships.
Recently, Instagram announced they are releasing new tools to help users better manage their time and the quality of their overall experience on Instagram. And, I think it’s fantastic, not just for my son, but for me, too. Their new tools help users track app use time, set daily limits on usage and set alarms to remind you to put your phone down and experience the real world. My son and I will be able to learn to better self regulate our time online together and my son sees me working with him instead of against him online.
Sure, I want my teens to experience sunsets and beautiful hikes and to make memories with their friends face to face. No parent wants their kid to be buried in a screen all day long. But, when my son and I have had a tiff before school and he sends me a heart emoji and an “I’m sorry” via private message on Instagram, I realize that social media is part of how we communicate. And I’ll never stop sending him heart emojis right back.