How to Talk to Tweens About Being Responsible on Social Media

Social media users are getting younger. As screen time increased during the pandemic, so did social media use, especially among tweens, according to the latest report by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.

Although most social media apps are intended for those 13 or older, nearly one in every five tweens, defined as those ages 8 to 12, reported being on social media daily.

These platforms can have both positive and negative effects for young people, researchers say. As more kids access social media at younger ages, it’s increasingly important for parents and educators to help them learn how to stay safe and use social media responsibly. That includes teaching your kids that what they say online can have long-term consequences.

Social Media Consequences at School

Just like with adults, the content that students post on the internet can affect their professional and academic lives. But younger, less-experienced users may not understand how a tossed-off comment or joke can have a serious impact online.

“Kids usually think mom and dad are just being paranoid, because they don’t know the real dangers associated with these apps,” says Christine K. St. Vil, a Maryland mother of three who publishes the blog Moms ‘N Charge.

Many schools are still struggling to adapt their conduct policies and figure out when to get involved with online speech that occurs outside of school hours. For instance, one case landed in the Supreme Court in 2021, after a Pennsylvania student sued her high school for suspending her from the cheerleading team following a vulgar Snapchat post. The Court ruled in the student’s favor.

In 2019, a high school senior in Lebanon, Ohio, received an 80-day expulsion for creating and posting an explicit meme involving school district staff members, which was then repeatedly shared by other students, according to local media reports.

Students have also been suspended for posting messages or images threatening the school or other students, including recent cases at a middle school in Newport News, Virginia, and school districts in Texas and upstate New York.

Keep Tabs on Tweens’ Social Media Use

Parents can help their kids learn to be responsible from the beginning of their cyber life.

That might include holding off on social media until high school.

“In general, I recommend following the guidelines on various apps,” Ana Homayoun, an educational consultant and author of the book “Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World,” wrote in an email. “So if a social media app says users have to be 13 or older, that is a good guide.”

If younger kids are online, keep their accounts private, not only for safety but also to minimize the reach of their posts as they navigate the social media landscape.

“My recommendation is that parents of 8-to-12-year-olds know all the ways their children are spending time online, and to learn how to use any apps their kids may have access to,” Homayoun says.

Parents can use a service like Family Sharing on Apple devices or Google Family Link to approve any app before your child is able to download it. Monitoring services and apps like Bark can help you keep tabs on what your children are doing online — but experts recommend talking to them about it, too.

Keep Communication Open

The most important way to guide tweens and teens through social media is to maintain open communication. “It’s not something where you’re one and done,” says St. Vil. “You have to keep having these conversations. If they’re not learning from you they’re learning from their friends or someone else.”

Those conversations should begin the moment your child receives their first device, says Kerry Gallagher, education director at ConnectSafely, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit. ConnectSafely offers free guides for families and educators on how to help kids use social media, gaming and other “connected technology” platforms safely.

“Let your kids know if someone comments in a way that makes them feed bad or sad, or they post something that they later regret, it’s OK to come to you and tell you,” Gallagher says. “I tell my kids ‘I won’t be mad. I won’t even necessarily be disappointed. I will help you.'”

Help doesn’t always mean instantly calling the principal or a peer’s mom. Sometimes it means working through possible plans and letting your child choose the path that works best for them.

“Maybe it doesn’t involve you,” says Gallagher. “It might mean letting them move forward independently.”

St. Vil suggests showing kids real-world examples of the downside of social media and discussing the difference between good use and bad use. Remember that although your kids may not be on social media, their friends likely are. Kids who are taught how to spot a fake account or insensitive content are more prepared to make good decisions on their own.

In addition, experts say, help kids find ways to stay engaged beyond their favorite apps — such as reading, physical games and in-person activities with their peers.

Consequences for College Admission

Beyond any immediate consequences, could something your child shares online today cause problems years from now, when they apply to colleges? It depends, experts say.

“We do not proactively check or monitor social media activities of applicants,” says Jonathan Williams, assistant vice president of admissions at New York University. “However, for admitted students, we do make it clear that they are expected to be good citizens online, and to treat others with respect in their online activities.”

The University of California–Los Angeles also says it does not consider social media posts in the review process.

“We have clear guidance from our faculty on the 13 criteria that we consider when evaluating a student for admission. Our review process focuses on information collected through the UC application,” UCLA spokesperson Ricardo Vazquez wrote in an email.

Still, nearly two-thirds of admissions officers believe online profiles are fair game during evaluation, according to a 2020 Kaplan survey, which also found that 36% of admissions officers surveyed admitted to checking applicants’ social media profiles.

“If you’re a prospective student and you think an admissions officer is not going to look at your social media, I think it’s a bit naive,” says Adam Peruta, associate professor and director of new media management at Syracuse University.

“From engaging with professionals at conferences and colleagues here at Syracuse most of them say, ‘Of course we look,'” he says. “It’s always a good idea to go back and do an audit of your social media accounts to look for anything unprofessional, in bad taste or offensive.”

Remember the Benefits

As teens get older and begin to think about college or careers, Peruta reminds parents that social media accounts can also be an asset. Encourage your teen to “post about a side hustle or job they have outside of school, or a class,” he says. “Social media is also about how do I leverage this to present who I am as a full human being?”

Gallagher advises parents to look beyond “worst-case scenarios” of social media in the news cycle. “There’s a lot of positive uses that don’t get any airtime. Social media is how kids stay connected to friends over the summer, and maintaining relationships (is) important.”

She also notes that kids can find inspiration in influencers: people who are engaged in service work, artists, social justice advocates and more. “Your child can develop a passion for service or creative pursuit they wouldn’t have otherwise found,” she says. “They have access to people that most of us couldn’t reach when we were younger.”

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