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Social media: a parent's guide


We have been working with Vodafone and the Diana Award on a project for schools called Be Strong Online, helping young people to support each other with some of the challenges they face online. This article is about one of the topics we have been talking to young people about – social media.

Social networking is a massive part of young people’s lives. It can sometimes seem as though apps like Snapchat, Instagram, Vine, Facebook and Twitter take up most of a typical teen’s waking hours. And it’s not just children – social media is now one of the biggest ways that celebrities, major news outlets and even politicians spread their message and reach out to people.

As a parent, it’s natural to worry about what your child does on social media and the amount of time they spend doing it. If you’re not active on Snapchat yourself, it can be hard to understand the allure of sending and viewing pictures designed to self-destruct. And even if you do use some of the major social networks, it often seems like new ones are popping up every minute.

Fortunately you don’t have to stay on top of every trend in social media to help your child enjoy it safely. In her book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, danah boyd wrote:

‘Teens turn to, and are obsessed with whichever environment allows them to connect to friends. Most teens aren’t addicted to social media; if anything, they’re addicted to each other.’

So many of the things you’ll have to think about when helping your child enjoy social media are similar to the things you think about in their offline friendships – are they getting too hung up on what other people think? Are their friends pressuring them or undermining their confidence? And of course, there are some specific issues that come with socialising online. Here’s our guide to some of the things you’ll need to know when helping your child navigate the world of social media.

Think about…

Age limits. Most social media has a minimum age. The most common one by far is 13 – this is related to American data protection legislation. It’s not necessarily a judgement on how age-appropriate the service is so you might think your child is ready at a younger age, or should wait until they’re even older. Still, it’s important to remember that sites and apps that are 13+ may not have measures in place to protect younger children, or could allow content that’s aimed at an older age group.

Comparing yourself to others. We tend to put our best face forward online. No one wants to post pictures of when their weekend away got rained out and they spent the whole time moping indoors. But it’s easy to get a bit down on yourself after scrolling through a feed of pictures of all your friends having a great time. And depending on who your child follows, there might well be some unattainably gorgeous celebrities thrown in for good measure. Your child will need to think critically about what they see on social media and remember that no one is as perfect as their Instagram account would suggest.

What others think about you. Everyone likes to be appreciated and it feels good when friends like or share your posts on social media. It’s also easy for teens and young people to get too preoccupied with what their peers think of them. This natural insecurity plus easily quantifiable measures of popularity, like number of Facebook friends or likes on a selfie, can be a tricky mix. Make sure your child knows you’re always there for them if it ever feels like they’ve got no friends, and remind them of all the things they’re good at and loved for offline. If your child is one of the few with thousands of adoring followers, talk about how no one can please everyone all the time. It’s risky to tie your sense of self too closely to other people’s opinions.

Bullying. Some people do use social media specifically to bully others. Whether it’s cruel comments on pictures, nasty messages or a dedicated hate group, online bullying can be very hurtful and can feel harder to escape than offline bullying. Fortunately, just about all the major social media platforms come with tools for blocking other users and reporting abuse. You can find more information on tackling online bullying here. You should also make sure your child knows how – and how not – to treat other people online. Something that seems like a harmless joke to one group of friends could end up really hurting someone else.

Digital footprint. Your children have probably heard it all before, but it’s still important to remind them that what goes online stays online. Making hurtful comments or posting compromising pictures could give people the wrong idea about who they really are, and could even affect their school and work options later in life.

Don’t forget the positives. Your child’s digital footprint doesn’t have to be a risk to be managed. Using social media positively and creatively can help them build an online reputation to be proud of. Lots of worthwhile causes use social media to campaign and raise awareness, and your child can use it to get involved in something they care about. It can also be a useful tool for staying informed, making professional connections and keeping in touch with friends and family.

Having the conversation

There’s a lot to cover to help your child be strong on social media. Here are some of our top tips on practical ways to help your child stay safe.

  • Agree together when they’ll join. It’s easier to talk to your child about the right age for social media than to try to get them off it once they’ve signed up. If you think your child is too young, be prepared to explain your concerns and to listen to their reasons for wanting an account. It might involve a bit of negotiation. That doesn’t mean you don’t get to make the final decision but it’s likely to be easier to enforce if your child understands your reasons and feels they’ve been involved.
  • Set some ground rules. Especially when your child first starts using social media, it’s a good idea to talk about what is and isn’t allowed. For instance, you might be happy for your child to have a Facebook account, but only want them to accept friends they know in real life.
  • Know the tools. Safety tools and privacy settings are an important part of using social media responsibly. Talk to your child about how to find blocking and reporting tools and privacy settings on their favourite apps, and why it’s a good idea to use them.
  • Stay involved. You don’t have to know about every new app that’s popular with teens but it’s smart to have a general sense of what your child gets up to. You probably want to know where your child goes and what they do with friends in the offline world – it’s the same thing online.

 You can find more information about helping your children enjoy social media safely on Parent Info



Image: Sean MacEntee CC BY