Talking About Social Media Mistakes with Your Teens

We all did dumb (crazy, careless) stuff when we were teens. But in a world of viral social media, those stunts can haunt kids into adulthood.

Teens online1

When my son was a teen, we routinely got into fights over Facebook. I received phone calls from relatives scandalized by the language in his status updates (he was quoting rap lyrics). A joke he played on his teacher—he borrowed her phone and changed her Facebook status to “dead”—backfired badly when the school got a call from the woman’s distraught grandparents in Germany. When we insisted on being his friends on the social network, he created a fake account just for his parents, saving the real one for his actual friends. (I guess he was ahead of the curve on the “finsta” trend.) It was an ongoing battle, and most of the time we lost.

Today those seem like more innocent times. Back then, all we had to worry about was Facebook, Tumblr and maybe YouTube. Now there are dozens more social media platforms you’ve probably never heard of (see below). But rest assured, your teens have.

RELATED: How Pressure to Get Likes and Followers Is Hurting Teens

We all did and said stupid things as teenagers, but usually the worst that would happen was temporary embarrassment or being grounded for life (i.e., through next weekend). These days, with social media a phone tap away, the whole world could be tuned in to those mistakes almost instantaneously, and the consequences can last for years. 

Just ask the 17-year-old in Northern California who secretly videoed a school administrator changing in a locker room and posted the nudes to Snapchat. (He was expelled, and other students who shared the images were suspended.) Or those class of 2021 students who had their Harvard acceptances revoked after the school discovered offensive memes they had posted in a Facebook group chat. Or the North Carolina teen who managed to combine mistakes by (1) allegedly selling weed and (2) using her Instagram account to do so.

In short, just because teens know how technology works doesn’t mean they know how to use technology, says Josh Shipp, author of The Grown-Up’s Guide to Teenage Humans. You wouldn’t just hand your 13-year-old the keys to the car—but many parents don’t think twice about giving them smartphones, he adds. “It’s like taking kids at peak ignorance and handing them a loaded weapon. But every day that’s exactly what well-meaning parents do with a cell phone. They toss them the phone and say, ‘Here ya go. Have fun.’ ”

With social media, teens need to learn the rules of the road before they take the wheel. And it’s up to you to teach them, even if you don’t fully understand all of them yourself.

Yes, You're a Clueless Middle-Ager

Remember how the adults always sounded in those old Peanuts cartoons—that trombone wah-wah-wah-wah-wah? That’s what you sound like to your teens when you’re talking about social media. Even if your kids don’t know much more about Instagram or Snapchat than you do (but let’s face it, they probably do), it’s unlikely they’ll see you as the voice of authority on the subject, says Juli­anna Miner, longtime parenting blogger, professor of public health at George Mason University, and author of Raising a Screen-Smart Kid. “I’m like, ‘You guys, I know all about social media. People pay me to be an influencer,’ and they’re like, ‘Whatever, Mom—you don’t know anything,’ ” says Miner, whose kids are 16, 14 and 10.

But your utter (or apparent) cluelessness can be your secret weapon. The key is to listen, not lecture, says Ana Homayoun, author of Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World. (Homayoun also worked with Instagram to come up with questions parents might want to ask kids about their accounts: wellbeing.instagram.com/parents.) 

“If you act like this curious person who has no clue, they get excited to show you how something works,” she says. “You need to ask, ‘Why are you using this stuff? Why are you posting? What are your friends and classmates doing? What’s working for you?’ ” 

The discussion will probably go a lot more smoothly if you wait for a teachable (or listenable) moment, Miner adds. “The most productive conversations we have are the ones where circumstances hand me a cue,” she says. To wit: “There was a recent news story about a sext­ing ring that began in my kids’ high school. We had a comprehensive talk about the social and legal consequences of what had happened. It was a lot more effective than, ‘Hey, guys! Let’s talk about sext­ing—again.’ ”

But You're Still the Parent

Eventually, though, you’re going to have to lay down some rules, ideally before they’ve started posting bikini pics—or worse—on Kik or created a dating profile on Tinder. 

The rules will vary from family to family and kid to kid, but it’s a smart idea to co-manage their accounts with them at first, advises Miner, especially with younger kids or those getting started on social media. That means sharing account logins and approving posts before they go public. Making the accounts private, or invite-only, is a good way to make sure that all their “friends” are actual friends. And you should encourage them to unfollow anyone who’s rude or abusive.

RELATED: How We Embarrass Our Kids, and How to Stop

“Parents should do whatever they can to integrate themselves into their tweens’ and younger teens’ online lives as well as their in-the-flesh lives,” says Cara Natterson, MD, a pediatrician and the author of several books about adolescent health. “That allows you to have common ground with your kids and to identify when things are going south.” Later, when your kids have demonstrated they can navigate social networks without crashing into a tree—or doing whatever the #trending  jackassery of the week is—you can take off the training wheels. 

5 Social Platforms You’ve Never Heard Of (But Your Teens Have)

ASKFM

Q&A site with 33 million yearly active users that lets teens post pix and answer questions from followers (anything from polls like “Riverdale or Stranger Things?” to the more angsty “Wasn’t I good enough for him??”). All posts are public but questions can be asked anonymously.

Houseparty 

Mobile app that lets you create live video and text chats with up to eight friends (and friends of friends). Half of its approximately 2 million monthly users are under age 24.

Kik 

Messaging app where users can communicate anonymously by text, photos, emojis and GIFs. According to StayHipp.com, it has a rep for being a sexting app. 

TikTok

Massively popular short-form video site with more than 500 million monthly active users. Videos can be public or friends-only. Picture an endless stream of teens busting dance moves in their backyards or pulling amusing (to them) pranks.

YouNow

Users broadcast live video streams of any length from any location and interact with viewers. So think The Truman Show, but with teens filming themselves and having zero qualms about letting the world watch them ramble on, sing or even sleep. YouNow claims to deliver more than 100 million monthly user sessions.