A family's guide to social media — Part 2

Trying to keep up with social media trends among teenagers can be a dizzying endeavor. One day, Facebook is the place to be. The next day, Snapchat is where it’s at. One thing about social media, however, isn’t changing: Teens use it.

According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 92 percent of teens go online daily, while 24 percent report being online “almost constantly.” With smartphones and iPod touches in hand, those teens are tweeting, Instagramming, and messaging their thoughts and adventures to friends and strangers alike. Social media sites like Snapchat are, to this generation, what shopping malls were to Generation X: the place to meet, talk, and hang out with other teens.

For parents of these teens (and increasingly preteens), understanding this virtual scene and helping their children navigate it presents a host of problems: How young is too young to go online, have a cellphone, or open an Instagram account? How much access to their child’s phone and social media accounts should they have? How do they protect their child from the worst of the virtual world and help them use social media wisely?

Our Sunday Visitor put those questions to a group of child, family and social media experts (parents included). Here is their advice on how moms and dads can help their children successfully navigate the ever-changing social media landscape.

1. Be balanced

When it comes to social media, it’s tempting for parents to go to extremes — either banning it completely or adopting an “anything goes, everything’s fine” attitude. But the truth, said Dr. Gregory Popcak, author of “Parenting with Grace” (OSV, $15.95), lies somewhere in between.

“The devil is not hiding behind every tweet,” he explained. “This is another area where kids hang out, and it’s natural to want to participate. You don’t need to live in fear.”

He continued, “But in many ways, social media is still the Wild West. It’s not that your children can’t be trusted; it’s that the medium can’t be trusted to keep your kids safe. You need to be involved, aware and provide guidance.”

2. Be discerning

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There is no one right age for getting a cellphone or signing up for Facebook, nor is there a single one-size-fits-all set of rules for governing teens’ social media use. Different children have different personalities and struggles, so parents must discern what their child can and cannot handle.

“You need to know your kids,” Popcak said. “Do you have the kind of kid who knows who they are and is good at standing up for themselves and their beliefs? Or is your kid more of a follower, more likely to go along with the crowd and do things that make them popular? That’s the kid who needs to wait a little longer to get on social media.”

That being said, even parents of preternaturally mature children should be cautious about letting them spend too much time online, advised Dr. Joseph White, an Austin, Texas, based child psychologist.

“When we look at the latest research on kids, electronic devices and screen time, we have good reason to pause,” he said. “Anything that keeps children in front of a screen longer, especially children younger than 13, is potentially harmful to their brain development.”

3. Be positive

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Approaching social media in a positive way goes hand in hand with approaching it in a balanced way, Michael Marchand said.

A former youth minister and co-creator of the popular youth ministry resource blog, ProjectYM, Marchand travels the country helping parishes, apostolates and youth learn to evangelize through social media.

“I believe this generation of young people has the capacity to change the world like no generation before,” Marchand told OSV. “That’s because they have access to the world like never before. I didn’t have the ability to share my story with teens in Australia by clicking a button. They can share whatever is important to them in a way that the whole world can see.”

While that thought might strike fear into parents’ hearts, Marchand said a positive attitude is key to helping teens share the right things in the right ways.

“I’m a big believer that young people rise to meet the bar you set for them,” he explained. “If you think they’re going to use social media for negative things, they rise to meet that expectation. On the flip side, when you set higher expectations, when you explain what’s possible and help them understand it as a blessing, they rise to meet that.”

4. Keep the focus on evangelization

Evangelization is a concept many Catholics still struggle to understand. Some conflate it with street-corner preaching. Others think of it as the exclusive purview of Protestants.

A more helpful approach, however, may be to think of it as storytelling — as sharing the story of your faith and how God has worked in your life. That approach both makes it easier and opens up a world of possibilities for evangelization via social media.

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“Instagram and Snapchat are tools that exist to tell stories,” Marchand said. “That is why they were created. As Catholics, we need to make a conscious effort to tell stories on social media about how Jesus has transformed us, and we need to teach teens to do the same.”

Although Marchand thinks establishing rules and guidelines about social media is important, he also encourages parents to go beyond rules by challenging teens to share their experience of the Gospel.

“That’s what we do at events,” he said. “We encourage them to pull out their phone and Instagram a picture of where they saw God that day or where they prayed. The more you encourage young people to share positive things — the more you help them see social media as a tool that allows them to share their joys, blessings, and the Gospel — the harder it becomes to use that tool in a negative way.”

5. Keep up to date on social media sites and apps

Your teenager may have a Facebook account, but chances are they no longer use it. Over the past several years, most teens have migrated away from Mark Zuckerberg’s empire to Instagram and Snapchat (where fewer parents hang out). In another year or two, though, Instagram and Snapchat could be passé.

Social media is a technology of the moment, so parents need to do their homework on where their kids (virtually) go.

“Invest some time in discovering current social media platforms,” White advised. “Go behind the scenes and learn some of the tricks of the trade, so you know how the sites operate. While you’re at it, learn social media abbreviations, too. They change constantly, and if you want to understand what the kids are doing, you need to learn the language.”

Although White thinks it’s smart to keep the investigations somewhat stealthy, lest kids “go off the site as soon as they realize their parent is on it,” Marchand believes openness is a better policy.

“The other day I was visiting with friends, and I asked their teenager, ‘What’s your favorite app on your phone?’” Marchand said. “He was happy to tell me all about it, with his parents standing right there.

“If the parent approaches these things in a negative way, kids will be inclined to hide it,” he continued. “But if you ask them what’s cool and to show you how to use it, if you act excited about what they’re excited about, they’re much more open.”

6. Establish and maintain boundaries

Just because you’ve allowed your teenager to sign up for Twitter or purchase an iPhone doesn’t mean they should have carte blanche access to the internet. Requiring that they stay plugged into the real world is an important part of teaching teens healthy social media habits.

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Justine Schmiesing and her husband, Dave, have a list of times and places their older teenagers are not allowed to use their phones, including at the dinner table, when family or friends visit, on family trips, when younger siblings are around and in their bedroom at night.

“If people are around and we’re doing things together as a family, they need to be present emotionally, not just physically,” the Steubenville mother of seven (ages 4-22) explained.

“We don’t want them, by their behavior, teaching the younger children that social media is more important than family.”

The bedroom rule was imposed for chastity’s sake.

“Late at night, when inhibitions are down, it’s easier to make mistakes,” Schmiesing said.

Marchand seconded that rule, noting that in all his years of working with teens, “Almost every one of them will tell you the first time they experienced porn was when they were given a phone or iPod touch. Teens should not have electronic devices in their bedrooms.”

Requiring teens to dock electronic devices in public spaces overnight and cutting off access to the internet for their devices at certain times (using the household router) are simple ways to prevent potentially harmful situations.

What’s more difficult is sticking to those simple ways in the face of teens’ protests. But maintaining boundaries is as important as establishing them.

“By the time they’re teenagers, you only have a couple more years of guiding them before they go out into the world,” Schmiesing said. “You need to use every minute of it. We see sticking to our rules as us being strong for them.”

7. Carefully monitor social networks

Social media is just that: social. Using it is not the same as writing in a journal or sending private letters. It’s more like New Year’s Eve in Times Square: anyone can show up.

“And if you wouldn’t drop your child off in Times Square to talk to whomever passed by,” White asked, “why would you do it virtually?”

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Keeping that in mind can help parents fight the temptation to leave teens to their own devices (literally) on social media. Although teens may perceive parents’ monitoring as an invasion of privacy, it’s not.

“Social media is not intended to be private communication,” Popcak said. “If it’s happening in my living room, I should be able to observe that. I need to be able to observe that. As parents, we’re responsible for our kids’ social behavior, and that includes social media.”

The extent to which parents need to monitor that behavior depends, like all social behavior, on the child’s age.

When her youngest daughter was 8, Debbie Seeman allowed her to have a Facebook account under certain conditions. (Facebook requires users to be at least 13 years old.)

Seeman told her: “I will have your passwords. You will be my friend. You will not block me. The only friends you will have are relatives and friends I choose for you.”

Today, Seeman’s daughter is 13, and those same rules (mostly) still apply. Only now, the Wyoming mother of four has permitted her to join Instagram and Snapchat as well.

“But if she joins a new network,” said Seeman, “I join that, too.”

The Schmiesing family has a somewhat less strict policy, primarily because their children start using social media at an older age.

“They’re not allowed to get their first device and join social media networks until the summer before their senior year in high school,” Schmiesing said. “We know they’ll start using it once they leave the house, so we give them a year to ease into it — with us overseeing their use and helping them navigate it.”

Accordingly, the Schmiesings don’t demand passwords or supervise teens’ friends lists. They do, however, make it clear that they will observe public interactions and can look at teens’ phones at anytime.

“They’re old enough that I don’t want to read their private conversations,” Schmiesing said. “But I’ll scan their phones to see whom they’re talking to and make sure nothing jumps out as problematic.”

8. Address mistakes

There are helpful and unhelpful ways to deal with teens’ mistakes on social media.

Topping the “unhelpful” list is interacting with them online.

“Don’t comment on their posts,” Popcak said. “And if there is bullying taking place, don’t use social media to correct the child doing it. Contact their parents and talk about it in person. You don’t want social media to become a substitute for real-life interaction.”

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Actual conversations with kids about their behavior, however, are helpful.

“When my daughter first started using social media, she didn’t understand why her comments would upset people,” Seeman said. “She had no conception of how things come across in writing. So, I would repeat to her what she wrote, in different tones, so she could grasp how she was being perceived.”

According to White, it’s also a good idea for parents to share their anxieties about social media with their children.

“Teenagers tend to assume motives on the part of adults that are not accurate,” he said. “If we can be clear about what we’re feeling and discern out loud, that can be helpful for them. It’s important for them to hear some of our reasoning process and get insights into how we feel.”

Along with conversation, consequences for mistakes also matter.

Recently, one of Schmiesing’s children violated the family’s “no phones in the bedroom” policy and exchanged an inordinate amount of texts with a member of the opposite sex.

First, Schmiesing walked her child through the implications of the imbalance in the texts.

“I asked them to think through the relationship: How many times had that person actually called? Asked them on a date? There was no real relationship. That kind of texting is very unhealthy, but it’s easy to slip into it.”

She and her husband also temporarily confiscated her child’s phone.

“You have to talk through these things with them, but they also have to learn that bad choices come with consequences,” she said. “It’s better that they learn that lesson now, under your roof, because once they’re out in the world, there will be consequences from which you can’t protect them.”

9. Set a good example

Seeman’s primary struggle with her daughter’s use of social media has been how much time it consumes. Although she allowed her to begin using social media at an early age with the hopes of teaching good social media habits, counteracting the pull of the virtual world has been increasingly difficult. Recently, though, Seeman realized that before she could expect her daughter to change, she needed to change herself.

“I was on social media so much that it didn’t mean anything when I told her to be on it less,” she explained. “So, I’ve started making some changes. I’m trying to stay offline more, exercise more, get out more, and I’m inviting my daughter to come with me.”

According to Popcak, changes like those are essential if parents want their teens to use social media wisely.

“It’s important for parents to model good social media behavior,” he said. “It’s hard to tell kids to put the phone away if you’re checking your Facebook feed while eating dinner or ignoring their soccer game because you’re finishing your blog. Modeling good social media behavior gives you credibility to enforce healthy rules.”

It’s also important to give kids good alternatives to being online.

“A lot of kids are on social media because they don’t have anything else to do,” Popcak said. “The family is in three different rooms watching three different televisions. Kids want community, but if their parents aren’t giving it to them, they find it online. It’s up to us to help them live more balanced lives.”

10. Pray

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In the end, a parent only has so much control over their children’s social media habits. They can ban devices, but with so many old phones and iPods in circulation, kids can easily get devices without parents knowing. Parents can try to stay on top of apps, but teens can always find new ones. And parents can try to teach kids to see social media as a tool for evangelization, but kids can ignore that lesson.

For that reason, Schmiesing believes the best thing parents can do to protect their child from the worst of the online world is pray.

“Ask God to take care of them,” she said. “Give it to the Blessed Mother. Pray that things come to light. And when you do find out what they’ve done wrong, be grateful it’s been brought to your attention. That’s God giving you the chance to help them work through those mistakes.”

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

Social Media Trends
What’s coming and going for teens in the world of social media? We asked social media evangelist and national youth speaker Michael Marchand to outline the latest trends for us. Here’s what we learned.