Taking a step-wise approach to introducing social media to teens

Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop
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Today’s parents and caregivers often find themselves caught between two powerful forces: on the one side, harrowing headlines about how social media harms kids, and on the other, kids’ vigorous lobbying for social media accounts.

Not surprisingly, this leaves many adults feeling that they must choose between two terrible options. Should they refuse to give their tween or teen access to social media and, in so doing strain their relationship with their child while likely harming their kid’s peer connections? Or should they allow access to social media and then try to monitor what happens, knowing that their child will, at some point, surely be exposed to toxic content?

I’m glad to say that the situation is actually not so simple and offers some room to work. While there is no solution that lets kids access social technologies while eliminating all downsides, a slow-going, pragmatic approach can help protect kids, adults’ relationships with them, and kids’ connections to their friends. Instead of treating access to social technologies as an all-or-nothing proposition, adults can take a step-wise approach to introducing it.

Step one:  Adults should wait until their child asks for access to social technologies, and then start what will be an ongoing conversation.

The age when kids make this request usually depends on the norms of their community or peer group. When it comes, adults should acknowledge that social technologies can, indeed, play an important role in kids’ social lives. When a child asks for a texting device or social media account, adults can also agree that the time will come when is going to need digital access to stay in meaningful touch with their friends. From there, the conversation can turn to a key question: has that time actually arrived?

So long as a child can remain connected to friends without access to social technology, the potential harms of introducing it outweigh the benefits. But if kids are starting to be left out of social plans because they aren’t reachable digitally, it may be time to consider a change. Social technologies can be bad for kids, but social isolation is bad for them, too.

Step two: Before granting access to social technologies, adults should make a few key rules.

Kids who are asking for access to texting or social media will agree to almost anything to get it. Adults should make the most of their leverage at this moment and set down stringent rules that support healthy technology use. I recommend adults start with this:  no devices go into a child’s bedroom – ideally ever – but certainly not overnight. Keeping tech out of kids’ rooms during the day protects their ability to sleep soundly in that same room at night. And keeping tech out of kids’ rooms at night prevents them from using it when they are supposed to be sleeping. Finally, being allowed to use tech only in the public spaces of the home serves as a constant reminder for kids that there is nothing secret about what any of us does online.

Adults should also feel free to make ban technology at the dinner table, on short car rides, or anywhere else it stands to get in the way of in-person engagement. Again, adults will never have more negotiating power than right when their child first asks for access to social technologies. They should make the most of it. Tech rules can always be relaxed over time, but many adults will find that they don’t need or want to.

Step three: Adults should provide only the minimum access to technology needed to maintain peer relationships.

Most kids can maintain their connections to their friends with texting alone, making it a great place to start. Before kids send their first text, adults should remind them – in no uncertain terms – that their digital activity is public and permanent. Accordingly, adults can make it clear that they will be monitoring their kids’ texts, at least at the outset. As for the texting device that a child uses, it can be configured with the browser disabled and so that apps can be added only with adult permission.

When adults are ready to offer texting to their kids, they should consider saying, “For now, texting should be enough to keep you in good touch with your friends. If you handle it well, we can talk about using a social media app down the line. And if you run into a challenge with texting – kids being mean, or to a group text that gets out of control – I’m here to help. Feel free to tell your friends to watch their words because I look at your texts or, if you need to, that I’m the one making you drop out of an off-the-rails group text.”

If kids are managing texting well, they can be allowed to text with less and less supervision over time. But if they find themselves caught up in ugly text-based interactions, close supervision or a break from digital access altogether may be in order.

Step four: Adults can allow increased access to social technologies on an as-needed basis – and only once there is a good track record with texting.

The day will come when kids make the compelling case that staying connected to their peer group depends on using a social media platform. Hopefully, having had access to texting will have delayed this moment until teens are at least fourteen years old. Why fourteen? In terms of neurological development, this is the age when the ability to think abstractly improves dramatically, and it means that they are much better able to be critical about what is put in front of them. Given that teens, once they start using social media, will inevitably be exposed to problematic content, it’s best to wait until they are cognitively able to regard that content with perspective and skepticism.

Access to a social media platform should only be given to a teen who has already demonstrated good judgment with texting. Further, before allowing social media use, we should remind teens to only post content that they would want their grandparents, rabbi, or a college admissions officer to see. And they should understand that if they encounter disturbing or worrisome content online, it’s their responsibility to alert a trusted adult.

Step five: Adults should stay close.

Social media is, without question, a digital Wild West. Adults will surely feel more comfortable allowing teenagers to explore it on the grounds that they are not using technology behind closed doors, when they have showed themselves to be trustworthy and responsible with texting, and when they have the cognitive maturity to question what they find online.

Adults who do decide to give their teen access to social media should offer themselves as partners in supporting teens healthy use of it. Keeping the lines of communication open around this requires being curious about what teens like about socializing online before asking them what they dislike. Teens who feel that they can talk freely about the full scope of their digital experiences are more likely to welcome adult support on minimizing the downsides of time spent online, which may include new rules and limits.

Finally, we should bear in mind that teens are far more influenced by what adults do than by what we say. Modeling the same healthy technology habits we want kids to adopt goes a long way toward helping them have a positive experience online.

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