Managing Teen Social Media Use

Four female teenagers using their phones outside

Despite protests about privacy when using social media, most teenagers desire the safety they feel from their parents’ involvement.

Serious Teenagers on Smartphones

Smartphones can feel like a lifeline

Our kids want to know we’ve got their backs. This notion is of prime importance given the burgeoning prevalence of teens using social media in the last few years. Screens are ubiquitous these days for teens, and they’re not just for homework either – screens comprise the core of teenagers’ communication with their peers happens via social media. Especially in these days of summer with fewer responsibilities, teen social media usage can leave us parents feeling disconnected from our kids’ lives in general, and worried about the types of interactions occurring just under our noses.

While this is a shifting culture, adolescents’ developmental needs aren’t shifting – the more things change, the more they stay the same. Teenage desire for full independence is always coupled with the need to feel loved, supported, and understood by parents, even if that message is obscured. It’s up to parents to not buy into the cries for privacy and instead, interact with our children online as well as offline. This way, using social media can serve as a forum for being closer with our teens. How. About. That.

Here are a few habits our family has adopted that I also recommend to my clients:

  • The Threshold Handover. When arriving home, teens must hand over their mobile devices. This creates a boundary allowing home to be where the heart is – where true, live connection happens. While initially this screen handover might be considered a jail sentence, after a few days or weeks it will become a welcomed respite. In addition, with regards to having friends over, I clearly state that I want them to enjoy each other without the computer or phone. This can be hard, but once the kids give over their devices, they even admit having more fun. There is strength in numbers here too – the more parents practice this strategy of collecting smart phones at the beginning of a social gathering,, the more impact we have on kids and their social development.
  • Separate out “Have To Do’s” from “Want To Do’s”. Eating, completing homework, attending to chores, and speaking with family members about our day are examples of Have To Do’s. Social media and most other internet usages are categorized as Want To Do’s, and are therefore secondary. Many families find it helpful to extend this categorization to weekend screen time as well. “Have to do’s” come before “want to do’s,” modeling for kids how to balance time priorities, and use intrinsic motivations to thwart procrastination.
  • Screen-Free Sleep. Particularly for teens, sleep is crucial. Therefore, bedtime is another reason for a Threshold Handover – otherwise, shut-eye is at risk. In addition, it’s best to wind down offline before going to sleep (at any age), because the screen’s blue light simulates daytime, and suppresses brain chemicals needed for sleep (serotonin). Therefore, it’s advisable to go screen-free half an hour before settling into bed for the night.
  • Give over a feeling of trust. We don’t want our children feeling like we’re Big Brother about social media usage. And along with boundaries has to come trust and responsibility. Kids must know we trust them. If they feel they need to hide something, it gives them fodder for rebellion and pushes them further away, rather than drawing them closer. So it is important for our kids to feel trust from their parents. That said, giving over trust can be harder said than done. After all, our kids are still kids, and no parent wants to see their child suffer or stumble. And yet, that’s exactly what we need to do to help them learn. So if you need to, practice feeling the trust first, and then speak to your child (what are you meaning here exactly? Speak to your child about what?). Repeat a mantra in your head, and allow yourself to feel it in your heart (even if you have to “pretend”): “I fully trust that you want to do good for yourself and others; that you care about your safety and that of your friends.” Repeat it 20 times if you need to – with sincerity. This will help move you to place where you can give your teen the space and trust they need.
  • Provide boundaries to facilitate the trust. Even as parents give over feelings of trust toward their teenagers, teens in turn appreciate frameworks and limits in order to best ensure they can trust themselves! One suggested boundary is to describe teens’ screens as parents’ property, and all social media as well. Many parents insist on having all login info to social media accounts and email programs, and this may or may not be the right dynamic for your family. Likewise, kids should know that parents might review their social media and web browsing history at any time. Whether or not you monitor the social media usage, if you are concerned at any time, raise any questions promptly with your children. Overall, use your best judgment regarding which boundaries will benefit your child.
  • Above all, monitor moods. Teens are infamous for being moody due to hormones raging, identities forming, and that darn balance of needing support versus forging independence. And yet, we can easily monitor our kids’ moods after they have been on screens, talking with them if their mood changes. Mood changes can signal trouble and are a good red flag to monitor with your child. Having this dialogue from the onset of a mood change is a key way to stay involved as parents and help our kids navigate using social media.

The above tips center around one theme: Be involved. Remain in harmony with your teenagers in general, and with their social media usage in particular. Don’t be surprised when they love you more for it!


For more information about social media use, check out these other posts:

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Alicia H. Clark, PsyD