It’s a question that keeps many parents up at night—how do you raise safe, healthy middle schoolers in the age of cell phones and social media?
“Parenting anxiety about the Internet is normal,” says EDC’s Shari Kessel Schneider, a public health researcher who has led the MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey since 2006. “Parents want to keep their kids safe, and they can’t always look over their kids’ shoulder to see what they are doing online. It can be hard to balance monitoring with a teen’s desire to have privacy.”
But in a time when 17 percent of middle schoolers report spending three or more hours on social media each day, finding that balance is important. Here are five ways parents can foster safe, responsible online behavior in the middle school years.
1. Ask questions
Asking children what they are doing online and who they are connecting with is the best way to monitor their behavior.
“Kids have a need for some autonomy in their online life,” says EDC’s Bill Tally, who has studied educational uses of digital media. “So you try to put some boundaries around it, but you also want to foster personal growth. Talk about what’s in their feed, who they are playing online games with, and what types of content they are interested in. Be open to these conversations.”
Tally stresses that communicating online is a standard part of growing up for today’s tweens. Asking them about their online habits and activity can build trust and honesty, which are both critical as they move into the teenage years—when most kids want more privacy.
2. Model appropriate behavior
While it’s fine to have rules governing the appropriate use of phones and computers, everybody—even parents—must follow them.
“Modeling is really important with adolescents,” says Kessel Schneider. “So if your family has a rule that phones are not allowed at the dinner table, then that has to apply to parents, too.”
Creating rules about when and where it’s appropriate to use computers, phones, and tablets can also serve as an opportunity to talk about the impact of technology on modern life. In Kessel Schneider’s family, for instance, all members agreed on a new family rule: At night, all phones are placed in a basket in the kitchen. No exceptions.
3. Stay connected
It’s one thing to establish some common sense rules; it’s another for tweens to actually act on these guidelines when they are engaged in a flurry of personal texts. Tally suggests a “tethered” approach, in which tweens are allowed to text friends and use social media at their own discretion, but they must share passwords with their parents.
“Tweens can handle some freedom online,” he says. “But parents should stay tethered, monitor their kids’ accounts on a regular basis, and look for opportunities to reinforce their rules and expectations about how you should act online.”
So how do parents monitor without being nosy? Try setting aside some consistent “check-in” times during the week to review some text messages and social media interactions together.
Kessel Schneider says that she uses a connected approach with her own teenagers.
“I tell them that I won’t make a habit of checking all the time, but I need to have access if I ever become concerned about their, or someone else’s, online safety or behavior,” she says.
4. Talk about social media
Parents play a critical role in in helping kids make sense of what they are seeing in their social media feeds, says Shelley Pasnik, an EDC researcher who has studied children’s use of media.
“Everyone constructs their own identity on social media,” she says. “These constructions are powerful, especially in the tween years. It’s important for tweens to know that what comes across their feed is not a full, accurate picture of their friends’ lives.”
She recommends parents investigate for themselves the social media platforms their children want to join and to ask questions: Who is the community for? What do people post? How do you plan to use it?
“It’s good to talk to your child about what they are posting, what they might be withholding, and why,” says Pasnik.
These conversations can help tweens think about how they are presenting themselves online. But there’s also value in allowing tweens the space to explore different identities on social media. As long as tweens are being safe, there is little reason to worry.
“It’s the work of adolescence to figure out how one is distinct from one’s parents and family, and that comes through experimentation,” says Pasnik.
5. Broaden the experience
One of the dangers of social media is that it can also foster an unhealthy sense of what values, experiences, and types of events are important. Tally thought a lot about this challenge when his own daughters were teenagers.
“I worried about the narrowness of social media in teen culture—from the constant sharing of memes and posed photos to the huge emphasis on ‘likes,’” he says. “What conclusions were they drawing about what was important and where their value as people lay?”
Tally suggests using digital media to deepen tweens’ experiences with things that matter to them. For example, encourage your middle schooler to take short video clips during a family trip, and then help her edit them into a longer movie that everybody watches together. Or, when your child finishes a book that he really enjoyed, help him find a fan-fiction site to continue the adventure.
Parents can also recommend their tweens follow organizations, causes, news sources, and artists that matter to them and reinforce family values, adds Kessel Schneider.
“You can broaden your children’s online world by encouraging them to follow groups that promote positive and proactive behaviors,” she says. “It’s easy for kids to get caught in a bubble where they see the same type of content and hear the same voices all the time. Parents play an underappreciated role in helping teens figure out what content is relevant and meaningful.”