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Talking to Teenagers… About Social Media

This post was originally published in September 2017, as the first in my series called “Talking to Teenagers.” These articles address common questions and concerns I get from parents about how to guide, support, and teach their tweens and teens– roughly 11-19 year olds. These articles invite parents and supporters to reflect as they explore ongoing, intentional dialogue about the “tough stuff” with their children. Dialogue, to me, is an ongoing process, not just a single conversation, as it involves sharing, thinking, feeling, adjusting, and integrating many layers of ideas over time.

The Facts About Social Media

Teenagers spend up to NINE HOURS a day on social media.

Stop. Breathe. Feel.

Notice what thoughts, feelings, and beliefs came to the surface. 

Now, consider: How many hours a day do you spend on social media?

I invite you to take a moment to check battery or screentime usage under settings on your phone. Get an honest look at this data: Where have you spent your screen time in the last 24 hours and the last 7 days? And how much time have you spent?

Indeed, as adults, we struggle with screentime, screen fatigue, phone addiction, and all of the other phone-related challenges that we are nagging teens about.

The Teenage Brain and Social Media

Teenagers have grown up socializing on and through social media in a way and volume that is unprecedented. During the teen years, the brain is changing very quickly and can be easily influenced. Thus, impulsivity and the drive to impress others can occupy much of a teenager’s thought processes. Layer this with social media and the ability to engage and interact 24/7, and things can get pretty intense.

This combination of the impressionable brain and nonstop stimulation can be a huge drain on teenagers and can create a massive barrier in family relationships.

Parents often share with me that their teens have “unhealthy relationships” with their phones or laptop (or countless other devices). They often share that they feel “helpless” and “uncertain” about how to help their teenagers navigate their relationships to technology and social media.

Naming the Big Emotions

First, I invite you to acknowledge your biggest fears about what your teens are doing on their devices. Name the big feelings you are experiencing about your teen’s frequent use of their devices and so on. There might be anger or resentment. That’s okay. These emotions are yours to experience, so it’s important that you give these some time and space outside of the conversation with your teenager.

While these fears and hurts may be real and valid, it’s important that you process these in your own space, such that you can come to a conversation with your teen in a more balanced and productive way.

Begin with Curiosity

After you have acknowledged your own feelings, you are ready to engage with your teen. I invite you to approach this conversation first with genuine curiosity and a willingness to listen to your teenager.

Here is a list of open-ended questions (my favorite, as you might know!) that you can use. These questions will open space for your teenager to share, and more importantly, they will begin to feel aware of and empowered by their process:

this is courtney harris taking a selfie for social media

  • What kind of posts (that you see or create) make you feel joyful?
  • Likewise, what kind of posts (that you see or create) make you feel upset?
  • How does social media help you express yourself?
  • Where do you go online for support?
  • How do you experience a sense of competition on social media?
  • How does social media feel like a tool for you?
  • Where, online, do you feel fearful or insecure?
  • How does social media challenge you?
  • What do you love creating online?

All of these example questions can be followed up with a “why” or a gentle encouragement to dig a little deeper– “Tell me more about that.”

Furthermore, it is essential that you refrain from responding with judgmental comments, criticism, scolding, or quick advice*. The goal is to give your teenager space to name to what they’re feeling and experiencing. This will leads to empowered and thoughtful behaviors– including the use of devices.

*Of course, if our teen shares that they or someone they know is in danger, it is your responsibility to act, set boundaries, or intervene.

As it feels relevant, I also encourage you to share your own BRIEF responses to these questions. This can be an authentic and inclusive way of modeling healthy boundaries with social media. Equally importantly, this can be a simple way to relate to your teenager. It is helpful to acknowledge that you, too, are challenged by social norms and pressures of the internet.

Incorporate Routines

Routines are another crucial piece of this conversation. This is a highly stimulating time of life, and daily routines and rituals offer comfort, space to recharge, and safety. Agreements around routines must be created together in order for teenagers to feel a sense of ownership and purpose. The following questions will support you in facilitating this conversation:

  • What types of things do you need your phone for on a daily basis?
  • How long do you think you’d like to be on your phone for socialization each day?
  • What time should screens be put away so we can get the rest we need?
  • Where will you keep your phone over night so it doesn’t disturb your rest?
  • What times or situations is phone usage not appropriate for?
  • What types of things do you find it useful/fun/joyful to post/share about?
  • Likewise, what types of things do you find it unhelpful/hurtful/damaging to post about?

Through these questions, your teenager may begin to understand what habits and behaviors are serving them (or not) They will also get in touch with their needs, preferences, and boundaries. Similarly, you may find new insights into your relationship with technology as YOU answer the questions.

6 Tips for A Productive Conversation About Social Media

  1. Initiate this conversation in a time free of technology-related conflict. Start with a fresh slate.
  2. Start with 1-2 questions at a time. Avoid interrogating or interviewing your teenager. Focus on curiosity and interest!
  3. Share the adult experience! Be brief, genuine, and relevant in your sharing, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, as this makes it a true dialogue.
  4. Adapt the questions to your individual language and style. Keep them open-ended as often as you can.
  5. Trust your judgment if there’s something you know you need to intervene in. Boundaries and safety are important, and there are times you do need to step in.
  6. Revisit this conversation time and time again. Routines need to be updated as life (and technology) shifts and changes. Come back to these questions regularly.

Sometimes, questions and curiosities about social media flow into a regular conversation on the drive home from school, and you can invite your teen to reflect. Other times, it will be necessary to return to the drawing board and re-establish routines and limits regarding social media. There is time and space for all of this! Finally, as you and your family explore routines and rituals around technology, you may enjoy documenting these on your support system map.

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