Teaching Teens Safe Social

Because I normally write about community and social media from a business perspective, this blog may be a bit of a personal deviation from the norm. However, after a TikTok trend threatening nationwide school shootings made the news last week and prompted LAUSD and other districts around the country to investigate and send communications to parents, I started to really think about how I talk to my own teen about using social media and our responsibility as parents to educate our teens about using social media appropriately and safely.

The gut reaction that I keep seeing from parents across multiple platforms is to suggest taking away kids’ phones or making them delete the app.  Which is great in theory.  However, with 90% of teens 13-17 reporting that they have used social media, and at least 51% saying that they use social media daily (American Academy of Pediatrics), is this approach even feasible? Chances are that your teen is using social media, whether you know it or not. 

I think about social media education in the same way that I think about sex education because saying the solution is to take social away from kids will work about as well as abstinence-only sex ed works (it doesn’t) in preventing pregnancy and STDs. We can tell them not to do it, but eventually, they will anyway.  In the meantime, let’s teach them how to be safe and avoid unintended consequences. These are some of the ways I work with my own teen to encourage Safe Social:

Set the Tone Early

Like most aspects of parenting, one of the best ways to show your children what you expect is to practice what you preach.  Is your own internet behavior a good example of what you expect from your child? Are you sharing both positive and negative personal experiences with your child?  

A safe way to do this is to show your child how family and friends positively interact on your own account, even when they are too young to have an account of their own.  What did grandma and grandpa have to say about your most recent family picture?  Show them a photo your sibling posted of their cousins and ask them how they would like to respond or what they want to say to their cousins.  Alternately, you can talk about something mean someone said to a celebrity and ask them how that would make them feel if it was said to them.  Teach them the toothpaste metaphor and talk to them about how it applies to social media. 

Most importantly, resist the urge to violate any platform Terms of Service.  Especially by allowing them to have an account before the age determined by each platform.  It sets the tone that you respect the platform rules and expect them to do the same. If you don’t want to wait for your child to be 13 to communicate with trusted contacts, Facebook has options for younger kids to communicate with people you choose using Messenger Kids

Be Present

In our family, we made a rule early on that if our teen was going to be on a social platform, we had to be connected (following, friends, etc.) with him on it as well.  While I generally don’t publicly comment or interact with his content so that it is his own space, I do have notifications on for when he posts and check his profiles regularly.  Teens still have DMs and texts for private conversations, but at least you know what they are putting out into the world.  If nothing else, being present makes your child think twice before posting. This will hopefully create a good habit of thinking before they post. 

Being present also means you will have to regularly use Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, Discord, etc., and have a basic understanding of how they work. While this may sound daunting, it can also be a way to connect with your teen.  Sharing TikTok videos with your child that you think will make them laugh or brighten their day isn’t just a modern way to send little love notes throughout the day, it also serves a secondary purpose of affecting the platform algorithms. 

Learn How to Stay on the Right Side of Algorithms

Just about every platform has a different algorithm for determining the content it chooses to show you. However, as a general rule, (especially on TikTok) how you interact with content determines the type of content that you will see in the future.  Liking, commenting, and sharing content will lead to you being shown more content of that type.  You may have heard people talking about being on a particular “side” of TikTok and this is exactly how it happens.   

The good news is that once you know this, you can start curating your content to some degree.  Talk to your teen about how they interact with content so they know that they have the power and control over making their own social media experience a positive one.  Talk to them about what they want their social media experience to look like. Then, encourage them to like, comment on, and share content that matches the world they would like to see and ignore, block, or report content that doesn’t.  The key to a positive social media experience is in using it intentionally. While the choices they make when interacting with content more heavily affects the algorithm for the content they see, the combined efforts of multiple users can also affect how the content is displayed for everyone across the platform.  Making good choices can also lead to better platforms.  

Know How to Use Platform Tools

“If you see something, say something” applies to social media as well.  All platforms have a way for users to report or block people and content or let them know you don’t want to see something.  Find the tools and show your children how to use them.  Teach them the difference between the kind of unwanted content including:

  • I don’t like this and don’t want to see it anymore. 
  • This goes against the rules and I should report it. 
  • Someone I know is being bullied. I should tell someone.  
  • Something made me uncomfortable. I should talk to an adult. 
  • Someone may be in danger. I should talk to an adult or the police. 

Your teens should know that platforms have tools available for all of these situations and how to use them.  They should also know that sometimes, actions have to be taken outside of the platform.  If you are open and honest about social media with your child, you become a safe place for them to go if something does go wrong. 

Visit the Platform Help Centers

Most platforms have a space where you can learn more about keeping yourself and your teens safe.  They outline the tools and resources that are too numerous to go into in one blog.  To learn more about the tools each platform has available, check out the links below: 

Facebook Parents Portal

Instagram for Parents

Twitter Help Center

TikTok Guardian’s Guide  

A Parent’s Guide to Snapchat

Helping Your Teen Stay Safe on Discord

Reddit 101  

You have the choice to either be a partner or an adversary on your teen’s social media journey.  The key to creating a Safe Social experience for them is in your hands, will you choose to take it?   

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