Hey Parents!!!! As a previous article What to Expect When You Begin Family Counseling mentions, family therapy is really about helping remove blocks between teenagers and their parents. In the spirit of that, I want to provide you with a series of articles about how to remove some of those blocks based on common issues we get questions about. To begin with, I am going to answer some questions about social media, how it can be helpful and hurtful, common reasons it is difficult for parents to talk with their teens it, and I see the role parents can play in guarding their teenagers while they are technologically engaged. I believe that parents are God’s way of resourcing teenagers so they can be successful. This article is to help you become more and more of that resource to your teenagers.
Why this article matters, is because as parents we need to learn to engage our children in conversation and also know what they are up to in order to help guide them in this world. Pastor Casey Nieuwhof said this recently, “Today’s young people are taking their hardest questions to Google, not their parents, friends or pastors” (Nieuwhof, 2020). In ways that I might have asked a mentor or someone discipling me questions or connect in-person when I was a teenager, our teenagers now have moved online. This article will answer questions you need to know about what this looks like in very broad strokes, and more specifically your role as a parent.
Defining Social Media
Oh my, what a task! Social Media is an ever-morphing and adjusting medium in which we ourselves and our teenagers are engaging. Although there is a lot of research that shows that defining Social Media is challenging due to the vast variety of forms and evolution of them, I am going to try to put it quickly for you. Social Media includes any forums we may have profiles of ourselves and interact through (Meta, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc.), can be anything through which we consume content from (The news, Hulu, Netflix, Pornography, etc.), anything we have profiles and compete in (Video games, Games/Apps on a smartphone, etc.), and can be anything in which we communicate through (MarcoPolo, Texting with memes and gifs, Sexting, Role Play forums, chat rooms, messenger, etc.).
In this brief and quick summary, I know that I am missing something. The point that I want you to remember is that defining Social Media is like trying to stab an olive that keeps rolling around and when you blink it moves. As parents, it is our job to know how our teenagers are engaging in Social Media; be curious and available to your kids, emotionally engaged, and kind to their needs! Later I am going to talk about why sometimes it is scary to do this and what gets in our way. Your kids need you to be continuously aware of what the new thing is they are enjoying, being entertained by, and engaging with friends through. Our teenagers need us to be lifelong learners, not perfect or know everything.
Pros and Cons of Social Media
Pros. Social media is providing a means for friendships, discipleship, and a way for teenagers to learn who they are. This was especially true during COVID and quarantine. Youth today engage with friends and their community through social media in a way that helps their mental health, creation, and retention of friendships, and beginning to understand themselves in a healthy way. Social Media can remove barriers to attendance and access to getting to know Jesus- as during quarantine some Youth Groups provided discipleship groups, worship/prayer nights, and coffee dates through social media in a way that had more youth in attendance than pre-covid!! It’s also a way in which youth are engaging in learning about themselves in healthy ways. For example, creating music! A friend of ours loves music, and he used free apps to write and record an album which is now available on Spotify- he’s only 17 and the album is about his love for Jesus! Without social media, there is less access to technology and resources for everyone to learn about what they are good at and what they love at an earlier age.
Cons. These can be a bit scary and later I will talk about what the role of the parent is. Research shows that on average the age youth are with their first account is 12.6 years old (NCIB), and the age is moving to younger and younger ages with falsified age reports. The reason why age is important is that although there are great benefits to social media, without the help of a fully developed frontal lobe that can think cautiously, teenagers can be put in high-risk situations. There is some research that shows that the average age of first porn exposure is 11 years of age and is moving younger and younger and future projections show that the average age is between 8 and 11 years of age (APA). Because Social Media is more interactional and has no moderation of who they might actually be interacting with, there is a higher risk of grooming behaviors, cyberbullying, and exposure to sexual content that is inappropriate for their developmental age, or just inappropriate in general (GovTech). This is important to know because as parents it is our job to make sure we are regulating freedoms in a way that is helping our teenagers be able to make good choices for themselves rather than the two extremes of banning things or giving full access to them.
Blocks Within Parents, Kindly
What stops parents from being curious and available to their kids, emotionally engaged, and kind to their needs? Often times what stops us are what I will call “blocks”. When a block is in play, we usually see parents who are very unaware of what is happening in their teenager’s lives. Blocks exist on both sides- both parents and teenagers. Here I will focus on the blocks within parents themselves. If you see your teenager is more than the average avoidant teenager, but is stonewalling you and will not let you in, please set up an appointment with us!
Here are what blocks may look like and why they exist:
- Being Anxious and/or Afraid. When we are this way, it inhibits us from being protectors and curious with our teenagers. Often times this looks like becoming preoccupied with safety and potential dangers than teaching teenagers how to protect themselves as they become young adults or it looks like ignoring an issue that needs our attention.
- Not having the education to know what our teenager is up to. (Remember this could be all of us!) We see this being the parent that has so much going on, like the single parent, that does not have the energy, time, or opportunity to know and ask what their teen is up to, so as to know what they need to learn about. We will not know everything, that would be impossible! We will talk about how to address this as well 🙂
- Our own history or current struggles. This can be due to a struggle a parent has/had with friendships, bullying, pornography, etc., that makes them feel as if they cannot help their teenager. It’s as if they are disqualified from being a resource due to their own struggles.
- Believing it is our teenager’s responsibility to come to us, rather than us seeking them out. This can be a shift in philosophies here, so hear me. Teenagers need us to resource them, they do not know what they do not know. And like I previously mentioned, they will google it before coming to us, so we need to seek them out!
- Fear of awakening sexual curiosity in our teenagers. I have heard this often and it leads to not addressing how to engage safely online so as not to awaken love prematurely or putting ideas in teenagers minds. Rather than sharing knowledge parents may feel it best to keep it to themselves.
None of these are inherently bad, and some of these may just be parenting and not blocks. Remember, you know that it is a block when it gets in the way of the parent reaching to their teenager with curiosity, availability, emotional engagement, attempting to kindly know their needs, and being able to meet them. I believe that every parent will experience some of the above.
Role Parents Need to Play
This is not an exhaustive list, but more of an approach and presence I would ask parents to take with their teenagers. I have mentioned them above, but now it is time to consider what that might look like practically.
Curiosity. Asking what our teenagers are enjoying to do recently online, what games they are playing, how they are enjoying interacting with friends online, what content they are finding to be funny, etc. ASK! And then humbly admit when you do not know and then ASK for their help to teach you! They may not seek you out to show this to you, so you need to seek them out. The presence you carry as you ask is of curiosity, kindness, genuine interest in what they are enjoying, and an attempt to understand them, not dismiss them when you get bored or get frustrated due to a lack of know-how.
Availability. This can look like being available to your teenager in whatever form this comes in. This can be in communicating over dinner, ride to school, or it can look like playing video games with them. It is truly about time and then stopping whatever you are doing to remove blocks of business, distraction, cleanliness of the home, etc., to be with them.
Emotionally Engaged. Curiosity and availability showed some of this, but it is not in just asking and just physically being there, but it is about being aware of their emotions, their experience of what they are sharing with you, that provides an opportunity for them to be known. God designed us with a desire to be KNOWN! With adults in therapy, we see a lot of damage caused dating back to them being teenagers, asked the right questions, parents being physically available, but not emotionally present or emotionally attuned to their teenagers. Model healthy emotional intelligence, express emotions, feel with your teen, and allow them to feel, even if you perceive that emotion being negative.
Knowing and Meeting Their Needs. Only you know your teenager, not me. So this point is really built on the foundation of the 3 previous approaches. As you do the previous 3, I am hoping you know your teenager more and more. This is really when you know how sexually mature and immature they are, how curious they might be, how accident prone they are, or even how trusting they are of strangers. Based on your knowledge of them, determine the protections you teach them.
Specifics for Social Media and Parenting
The great markers of success here are based on the previous section. You must know your child to know how to help them! When it comes to Social Media, there are often questions about sexuality and how to prepare your child to know how to protect themselves. I will address more about sexuality in another article, but here I want to mention that when parents do not go first due to their own blocks, I have seen two things happen: (1) Teenagers either are naïve and get themselves in trouble because they do know how to protect themselves or to talk with parents about their problems, (2) Teenagers are overly exposed to mature content and continue to dive deeper and deeper with no exit plan. Both are very damaging. Here is some practical advice for you, these need to be morphed based on the age of your teenager
- If they want an account, help make their accounts with them and be apart of this process with them
Beginning this talk around 11 and 12 of desire to have own account, before this point having family accounts so they can watch age-appropriate shows on Disney+ or playing video games. Setting rules that they can have their own when they follow rules as FaceBook’s rule is 13 years old. 13th Bday “It’s your Bday!!!! Do you want to make a TikTok? Would that be something you’re interested in?” Know that they will need an email to do this as well.
- Talk through what they wish and expect their interacts with friends, family, strangers will be on social media
“I am so happy that you get to have some independence! How do you want to use your profile? Do you wish to play with friends? Family? How do you think you’ll handle strangers?”
- Teach boundaries of who gets access to their accounts and why (why is important so they have buy in and learn to do this themselves)
“You know that there are people out there that will want to be your friend but that are dangerous, I want you to be safe. How do you know when you can trust someone, what will you be able to see?…If that’s the case, then how do you know that they can be friends with you if they’re a stranger and you don’t know them online?” Set some rules together.
- Discuss what content do they want to engage with and talking through how they know when content is for a more mature audience than them and what to do if they stroll across such content.
“You know adults are on here as well and may use this for other reasons than yours, so you may find grown-up things on here. Do you know what grown-up things look like? How would you be able to identify grown-up things?…. There are some grown-up things about how your body is changing right now,
- What to do if someone is mean to them on social media
“Did you know that online, people can be bullies? If that were ever to happen, how would you want me to help you?”
One key goal——-You are trying to be curious, attentive, emotionally engaged, and meeting needs. All of the above will be adjusted by what you know your teenager is experiencing. The One Key Goal is thinking about how to help your teenager be successful when they are young adults and can do this on their own. It is not to their benefit to just set rules without them buying into them and knowing why. This is so that they can know how to protect themselves.
Nieuwhof, C. [@cnieuwhof]. (2020, November 5). Today’s young people are taking their hardest questions to Google, not their parents, friends or pastors. @Dillon_M_Smith. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/cnieuwhof
Additional helpful article: 101 Social Networking Sites You Need To Know About In 2021
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