As a parent, I feel like I'm constantly weighing up the positives of technology and embracing the opportunities it offers our family, while also mitigating the risks it can pose to our kids. It’s complex, right? And with anything complex, it’s a good idea to keep the lines of communication open.

Social media is a great thing to talk about with our kids, especially as they approach the age where they might be wanting their own online profile. And once they are active on social media, we absolutely need to keep talking about it!

But what should we talk about? There are the obvious issues – online safety being top of the list. Privacy settings are right up there too. But also important is honest and open discussion about the role social media plays in our lives and the pervasive influence it can have on self-esteem and emotions. These topics might seem a bit deep, but it’s worth bouncing ideas around as our smart kids are capable of making great decisions and forming healthy perspectives – especially when we empower them with the ability to look at an issue from different angles.

It’s a highlight reel, not behind-the-scenes

Social media users both young and old do well to keep this mind. Generally speaking, people post their highlights – their shiniest achievements and their most flattering photos. Their wins, rather than their losses. While there’s nothing wrong with that, reminding our kids that what they see on social media reflects other people’s best moments, but not necessarily the hard work, struggles and failures behind the scenes, will help when it comes to the inevitable comparisons we’re all tempted to make while scrolling.

Beware the comparison trap

Here’s another adage you could float with you kids and see what they make of it – comparison is the thief of joy. When it comes to social media, this is an interesting tension. When our kids scroll through photos and status updates, there will be plenty to celebrate and loads of opportunities for our kids to encourage their friends – that’s healthy and character building, isn’t it? There will also be plenty of opportunities for them to compare themselves to others and there’s a real risk they’ll come up feeling short. Gentle conversations around the effects of comparison can help protect our kids from having their joy stolen. It’s great to scroll and celebrate, not so great to scroll and compare. If the scrolling is resulting in more comparison than celebration, it might be time to take a break.

If we’re honest about our own weaknesses when it comes to comparison, and if we can share with our kids some of the boundaries we’ve set up to protect our own hearts, we’ll be empowering them with some vital navigation tools.

If the scrolling is resulting in more comparison than celebration, it might be time to take a break.

The popularity parade

One of the many consequences of sharing our lives on social media is that we’re putting ourselves out there for review. Because of social media, popularity is now measurable and the statistics are within easy reach. The implications for our kids’ self-esteem are considerable, but we shouldn’t panic. As digital natives, our kids can potentially read between the online lines better than we can. As parents, however, we should make sure our voice of encouragement is loud and clear for our kids. What we say to our kids is so foundational to their self-esteem. We – the parents – should always position ourselves to be there for cushioning and connection. While it may feel like more and more of your young person’s life is happening online, parental encouragement and cheerleading – in real life – still speaks volumes.

Young people can be really encouraging of their peers online.

It’s a really good idea to keep an eye on what is happening for our kids on social media. Many families have a policy where parents have open access to their kids’ online world and can check in any time. Talking is also an important tool, however. Ask your kids about their posts, and ask them what feedback they’ve received. (You’ll hopefully be pleasantly surprised – young people can be really encouraging of their peers online.) Ask them what their friends are posting about and what your child has commented or thought about in response.

Connection matters

Online connection may not have been a thing when we were journeying through adolescence, but it certainly is now. And that’s okay. When it comes to our young people, Child and Family Psychologist Linde-Marie Amersfoort highlights some of the benefits. “Social media is great for connection, especially when you’re shy. It’s also a great source of support from peers and organisations.” It doesn’t, however, replace real-life connection. Hence it’s so helpful for our kids if we keep up the real-life talking!

Risk-benefit analysis

Our eldest daughter recently got her first phone and with it, set up her first social media account. Here are some really ‘un-cool’ things we insisted we talked about long before we gave her the phone, in the hope of helping her see social media from all the different angles. We’re so uncool that we even got her to grab a notebook and write down her answers (sometimes in list form!) in response to these questions.

  • What are the risks of having a social media account?
  • What are the benefits?
  • How will you keep yourself safe on social media?
  • How will you use social media to help others?
  • How will you use social media to organise your life – after-school activities, sports, clubs, youth groups etc.
  • How will you use social media to connect with your friends and family, nearby and far away?
  • What should young people think about before posting something?
  • What’s okay to share?
  • What’s not okay to share?
  • How long do you think young people should spend on social media each day?
  • Why do you think people still feel lonely, even if they’re connected on social media?

Another issue we should talk about with our kids is the potential of social media addiction. Every time we get positive responses to something we’ve posted, our brain gets a highly addictive hit of dopamine. Our young people might be surprised to learn that it is the same sort of chemical reaction that occurs when people gamble or use recreational drugs. Ask your kids why they think it feels so good to get a ‘like’ on social media. Ask them what they think those feel-good hits could cause us to do next… For the keenly philosophical, ask them how they think app developers capitalise on the addictive power of social media and other technology. Talking about the power of addiction goes a long way in equipping our kids to stand strong in the face of it.

For the keenly philosophical, ask them how they think app developers capitalise on the addictive power of social media

This is a lifelong conversation. Regular check-ins with our kids about what’s happening in their online worlds and how it is making them feel are so very important. Like any tricky topic, sometimes our kids won’t be that forthcoming in their responses, but it’s vital we stay available, stay open to discussion, and always position ourselves as unconditional listeners. And we also need to walk the talk – modelling healthy social media habits and boundaries. Our kids are looking at us and will truly benefit when we authentically demonstrate that real life is so much more fulfilling than scrolling.

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamariki.

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