Parents: How to guide kids’ social media use at any age

  • New guidance: Teens need parents' help with social media
  • Expert: Take time to decide what your family values are 
  • New tech helps parents monitor kids while giving privacy

FILE – This combination of 2017-2022 photos shows the logos of Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat on mobile devices. (AP Photo, File)

(NewsNation) — Teens need parents to guide them when it comes to social media — that’s a top-level summary of the new guidelines the American Psychological Association released this week. 

Yet many parents are left at a loss when it comes to how to do so.

That’s where mom-of-four Krista Boan found herself about five years ago, when the hottest Christmas gift of the year was a smartphone. So she asked older parents for advice, just like she did when her kids were babies. 

“I found … a generation of parents that said, ‘I don’t have any answers or wisdom for you,’” Boan said. ‘“But whatever you can do, do it differently.’” 

That’s exactly what Boan did. She’s one of the co-founders of Screen Sanity, a nonprofit that equips parents to guide kids growing up in a digital world. They preach against seeing the internet as a binary issue — good or bad, to be constantly connected or completely avoided. 

“You’re not never going to have social media,” she said. “But we’re going to get you ready for the day when you are mature enough to make decisions.”

NewsNation asked Boan for practical tips for parents to protect their kids online while maintaining privacy, how to screen for “problematic social media use,” and how to teach online literacy.

It starts with you

“It’s kind of critical that we put on our own oxygen mask first, isn’t it, before we start taking care of our kids?” Boan said.

She said parents should examine their own digital habits, because kids are watching. 

“They’re learning what we are choosing to share with the world on social media,” she said. “If they see you thinking, ‘I don’t like the way I look or maybe I don’t like the way you looked, so I’m going to ask you to take that picture again,’ then they’re receiving a really strong message.”

Boan also suggests taking time to decide what your values as a family should be — and make online choices that support those values and goals.

“Do we want to be about serving others? Do we want it to be about good sportsmanship? Do we want to be about connection?” she said. “Then we can set up that as the framework for all of our technology use: Is this opportunity and technology supporting the thing that I value? Or is it getting in the way?”

Narrate your online use — and start young 

If you think your toddler is too young to learn about social media and online use, think again. Boan suggests a practice called “narrating” — saying out loud what you are doing on your device and why.

“Our kids can hear that and develop an internal compass about what healthy technology (use) looks like versus what destructive technology use looks like,” she said.

“I can start saying things like … ‘Oh look, mommy just said that I needed new diapers, and here’s an advertisement that is for the diapers, which is the brand that I usually use. It seems like … there might be somebody listening to this conversation.”

You don’t have to have perfect use in front of them, she said.

“An incredible gift you could give your kids is on the days that you have bad social media days, you can step back and say, ‘Hey, this happened to me on social media. I can tell I’m agitated with you today. Have you noticed that?’” 

Boan said some parents let younger kids open a shared social media account, like Instagram, to practice.

“You can coach when the likes don’t come in that they expected or when the comment that’s hurtful is said or unsaid,” she said. 

Track the bad, don’t police the good 

There are many tools that can help parents monitor their kids’ online activity in age-appropriate ways.

“We encourage parents to really think of it like just putting on a seatbelt,” she said. “We wouldn’t send our kids out onto a highway where there are reckless drivers and hazards all over without having some kind of safety net.”

A young child may only have access to watch certain shows on a locked iPad, for example, or you can install filters on your home Wi-Fi to keep out hateful or explicit content. 

When kids are old enough, Boan recommends the app Bark, which only alerts parents to problematic behavior. 

“We don’t have to be hyper-vigilant about every single text that they’ve sent,” she said. “That is the goal, right? We don’t want to just control and monitor our kids until they’re adults. At some point, we have to weigh the safety that we desire for them with the independence that we want them to grow.”

No matter the age of the child, it’s important to establish a rhythm of checking in.

“We’re used to saying, ‘How is that medical diagnosis going? Or how is that relationship with your sister going?’” she said. “We are still learning to build the muscle of checking in on … ‘I saw that something complicated happened with that post. How are you processing that?’”


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