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Supporting teens for healthy social media use

 By Sarah Odendahl

Teen girl texting on the phone
Teen social media usage has been making headlines the last two months, both nationally and right here in Minnesota. Whether it’s concerns about how social media shapes teens’ social and emotional health or concerns about cyberbullying, inappropriate content, and documenting illegal behavior, it can sometimes feel like the digital landscape is out to destroy our youth.

I was a teenager when Myspace, Facebook and Twitter came onto the scene, so it feels like I grew up alongside what we now call social media. I’ve received inappropriate messages, watched classmates suffer consequences for photos of underage drinking, and posted things that make me grimace when they pop up in “Memories.” A generation later, we know better what pitfalls come with teens using social media, yet problems continue to arise.

How can parents, teachers, and youth workers help youth make smart choices around social media?

  • Listen to youth’s opinions on social media: Data from Pew Research Center shows that youth have different experiences with social media. Give teens the opportunity to share how they interact online and what parts are hardest for them. Youth who struggle with cyberbullying, low self-esteem, peer pressure, or cyber addiction will likely need more support from you than youth who have an overwhelmingly positive experience with social media.
  • Analyze your own tech usage: It’s hard to have a conversation with teens about how much time they spend on social media when we are in the middle of scrolling our own Facebook feed. The Child Mind Institute suggests the most effective strategy for minimizing teen technology risks is to “set a good example of what healthy computer usage looks like.”
  • Discuss privacy settings and online safety: Social media apps often have changes to privacy options that have to be addressed in the middle of clicking “post.” Help teens understand what different settings mean and how to make choices about them. Discuss the importance of password protection and what personal information should be kept private. If sharing about locations/events they visit is important, when can they do so safely (for example, when they’re with a group or after they’ve already left that location)?
  • Define “appropriate”: Every generation has different views on what’s appropriate - my mom wasn’t allowed to wear pants to elementary school, but I can’t remember the last time I wore a skirt. Teens today are using social media to destigmatize mental health struggles and discuss social justice. Chances are you will have a different idea of what’s okay to share than teens. Open a conversation about why you each feel that way and look for compromise.
  • Talk about youth’s “audience”: Teens may assume the only people seeing their pictures from homecoming and jokes from chemistry class are friends and classmates. Since we know nothing on the internet is ever truly gone, it’s important that youth understand that the things they post, even at age 13, may someday be seen by a college admissions officer or employers. A person’s social media presence can make a huge impact on their future.
  • Commit to ongoing conversations: Youth’s relationship with social media will change as they get older, as the platforms change, and as society evolves. Let your teen know you want to discuss content they see that brings up difficult or confusing feelings. Be open to revisiting boundaries as youth get older and can be more responsible for their usage.

Even with support from adults, teens will likely make mistakes online. By building open conversations about social media, caring adults can help minimize those mistakes and support youth to overcome them.

What other tips would you offer adults in supporting teens use of social media?

-- Sarah Odendahl, Extension educator

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  1. Sarah, thank you for raising this important topic and offering such practical approaches for us as adults. I really appreciate that you called us to keep two principles at the center: be aware of what/how we are role modeling, and engage youth respectfully in conversation, including listening to their perspectives and negotiating a compromise. These are such important elements of meaningful youth development on any topic. Thanks for offering ways for us to do so!


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