How to keep your teen safe on social media

Right, so here we are talking about one of the most pressing issues of our times: Social media and teens. It is a topic that all adults know needs to be addressed, and one that the teens believe, their parents should stay away from.

Attend any PTA meeting in school, and you will hear the teachers warn you of the dangers of letting young children access social media without adequate parental guidance. There is the fear of stalking, of having online relationships with adults who are upto no good, the danger of cyber bullying, the fear of your child creating a digital trail that may come back to haunt him in later years when he starts applying to universities or for jobs… the concerns are endless.

But the flip side: this is the technology of the future, everybody is on it. Your child’s future academic institute will look for blogs and Facebook communities that your child has set up, invested time in or nurtured, the networks they make here are ones that can connect them to their future mentors, they follow their icons, study and observe how these social media celebrities have become icons and hope to do so themselves.

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Understanding the power of social media
The young people today are not just dreamers, they dream big, and they are brave, very brave, I think. To them, failure as a concept does not exist. What social media has done for us as a society is made us realize that you don’t have to win the Nobel Prize to be considered successful. Each community has its success stories, consisting of passionate people who wanted to make a difference. Social media brings these young achievers and doers to the fore, inspiring others in their age group to do the same.

You hear their interviews on radio, they perform at local clubs, some of them travel across the nation or even the world, sharing their passion and their stories, in the process building a network of followers and becoming more famous and thereby, according to the traditional standards, successful.

Can I make social media work for my teen?
These positives make me ask the question, what should I do about social media and my child being on it. If he spends too much time on it, it affects his academics; if I take his access away, I fear he is being left behind. As a parent, how do I strike a balance?

Some of the answers by experts dealing with children and teens can be a route that you may want to adopt:

  • First and foremost acknowledge that your child will have a social media presence. In this day and age to expect otherwise is living in a fool’s paradise. We fear social media as we are not very comfortable navigating this digital world. Your teen knows it well in terms of how it functions technically, how the various networks are connected and how people using it to their advantage.
  • Set up your own social media accounts and ask your teen to help you understand how the different media work. Most teens are happy to teach you as it makes them feel you appreciate their inputs instead of constantly telling them that they don’t know anything.
  • Speak to your teen about the real world dangers when you were a teen, how you were advised to remain safe and how the safe rules apply online. Eg: Don’t speak to strangers, don’t share your information with people you don’t know, don’t be rude to peers even the ones you don’t get along with… explain to him / her that apart from their friends viewing their social media posts, there are also known adults who could be checking them out, like teachers and their friends’ parents.
  • Teach him to mind his language: Content posted online by young teens can appear out of line, brash or even vulgar to adults who are not used to the lingo teens use between themselves. This can easily be misconstrued and spoil a teen’s reputation. I have found it important to explain to my teen to use his language very carefully on social media keeping in mind that the other child’s parents may be accessing his / her friend’s account. Being aware of this fact ensures the social media conversation remain publicly acceptable.
  • Follow your teen on social media, but as an observer: Ask your teen if he is ok with you following him on social media accounts. Most teens do not have a problem with that as long as you don’t keep commenting on each post. A ‘Like’ once in a while is appreciated. Being very vocal in a space that he shares with his friends is like inviting his friends to come over and sitting in the room while they want to share their private stories.
    You would not do that in real life, so don’t do it online. Give the child his / her space, you are just following the account to keep an eye on his / her activities.
  • Follow his close friends, but don’t invade their privacy: My teen helped me set up my Instagram account and also asked his close friends to be my first followers. This encouraged me start posting regularly and his friends would regularly ‘Like’ my posts, making me feel good. This also let me follow them and watch the activities on his friends’ pages. Please note, the same rules of online conduct apply for friends’ account: comment as little as possible, Likes are ok, it makes them feel good, but comments can make them feel as though you are invading their privacy. So tread carefully.

Social media and rocky parent-child relationships
Next question: What if my teen does not share his social media account / does not accept me as a friend? Yes, this could happen if you and your teen tend to argue and disagree about almost everything. I would suggest two things:

  • Chat with your teen, help him understand that you have his best interests at heart.
  • If that doesn’t work, ask an adult family member whom your teen connects with and is a trustworthy person to help out. See if your teen accepts his or her friend requests, and let the adult be your teen’s guide in his social media journey.

Surviving Parenting in the digital age
Yes, it is difficult to be a good parent and be liked by your teen these days. But I don’t worry too much about being liked. You see, while at this time your teen may think you are being archaic and old-fashioned, you need to remember you are only trying to keep your teen safe. Just don’t put the rules down with an iron hand, as that simply does not work with today’s generation.

They believe they are grown ups, and deserve to be treated as such. But as I have mentioned in my earlier articles on this blog, you need to understand that they are not always thinking straight or logically. Put your rules in place, share your perspective, listen to them and walk with them mentally to a solution that works for both of you.

Don’t make every discussion with your teen a power struggle and an ego conflict. It is not. You are still dealing with a child, who currently is reacting like a toddler. So have patience, guide him, love him and let him know that no matter what happens in the world of social media, you still will be his most ardent follower.

~ Bharti Athray

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