When Your Tween Becomes Social Online

As your child’s social world begins to expand, technology will become a cornerstone for supporting their growing social needs. Developmentally, kids tend to be more focussed on quantity over quality of friendships, which makes social media such a draw, where it’s all about the number of ‘likes’ their posts have or how many ‘followers they can gain.

Cyberbullying Risk

To an outsider or adult, much of the socializing that is happening at this point seems superficial. In fact, when cyberbullying events happen, they may seem quite benign, and it might be tempting to encourage your child (or another child if your child is the perpetrator) to ‘just get over it’. We now know, however, that the impact of seemingly joking or teasing behaviour can be perceived in much more negative ways by the recipient. It is very important for you to not downplay your child’s experience.

Research is showing that kids are less likely to go to an adult for help about cyberbullying because they think the adult won’t get it, or worse, will take their device away (essentially punishing them for being cyberbullied). Conversely, if your child is engaging in cyberbullying behaviour, it’s very important to help them develop empathy for the person at the end of their messages, and to help them understand what a healthy relationship looks like online. A useful way to remind them about proper etiquette online is to remind them that “if you don’t speak or act like this in person, you shouldn’t do it online either”. Communication with your child is key in developing a mutual understanding about what is and is not acceptable online.

The short answer is yes. Social needs are prominent for this age group, and we are now living in an era where mobile technology provides a powerful way to meet these social goals. Similarly, the way games are designed taps into our human nature as goal-directed beings, and we feel satisfaction comes from completing a task successfully (leveling up, getting more gold, etc.).

Although developmentally normal, it certainly isn’t healthy for a child to spend all of their time online. Not only does a sedentary lifestyle increase the risk for obesity, it displaces other aspects of a child’s life that are important for healthy development. Your job as a parent is to negotiate a balanced approach, and help enforce and model it.

It is really important not to pathologize your child. Make sure your child understands that there is nothing wrong with them – that everyone is susceptible to the lure of technology. It’s designed by corporations to be like that! You can also assure them that most of their friends are having similar battles with their parents. It might also be useful to find common ground with them, and remind them that back in the day, your parents nagged you about being on the phone too much.

This is something that you and your child need to figure out together. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the most important aspect to consider is balance, and to ensure that your child’s media and technology use is not displacing other important activities such as exercise, sleep, or family time. As your child’s social world becomes more intertwined with technology, they will likely push you to let them have more autonomy around their device and more time online. Having and adhering to a Family Media Plan and/or Device Contract will help reduce friction around this. For example, having an agreed upon rule that there are no devices at the dinner table or no devices in the bedroom overnight will allow you to just point out the rule, and enable you to avoid ongoing negotiation. Oftentimes, parents feel guilty about cutting into their child’s socializing time. Especially if there is drama going on and your child is 100% convinced that if they don’t finish the conversation/discussion, etc., they will become socially ostracized or lose their best friend. Teens can be very compelling about this, and it may make you lose your confidence in following your media plan. While there may be appropriate times to bend the rules, for the most part, your child will be able to join in socializing as soon as they are back online, without any negative consequences. It’s important to trust your instincts on this. Your child is still looking for you to help them learn about boundaries, limits, and balance.
As kids start gaining more independence, and have a designated device that they use, it will be difficult to monitor everything that they are doing online. Their device and apps may be registered in your name, which allows you to see all the texts they send, or you may have a policy where you have all their passwords and can look at their device at any point, however, there will still be a lot of unmonitored time online. In fact, if kids feel too scrutinized by their parents, they will quickly figure out work-arounds like deleting messages; hiding apps; or using a friend’s device. The best way to avoid this is to have lots of open dialogue about what they are doing online, and who they are interacting with. It needs to be a positive conversation if you want them to share openly! Demanding information from them will not help them open up to you. One way to build trust with your kids, and also to get a small window into their online persona is to use games and media with them. This will also give you a good sense of how appropriate the game is in terms of violence and appropriateness.

Finally, if you have a family media plan in place, have set check in times where the plan is revisited to ensure that it continues to be relevant and useful. It will also provide you a designated time to have conversations about being online.

This is a difficult question to answer. Not only are there new apps all the time, but even the ones that exist are constantly being updated and changed, with new functionalities added. That said, here is an overview of the current social networking apps that are most popular among tweens and teens right now.

Whether you let your child have an app is a decision that should be made between you and your child. Some apps have age restrictions, which many parents use as a guide (although many do not). Most importantly, before letting your child have an app, it is a good idea to educate yourself about it. A quick Google search will let you know if the app in question has any controversy surrounding it. For example, when Snapchat came out, it’s big sell was that the messages sent only lasted for a few seconds and then disappeared. However, kids quickly figured out work arounds to save the content – either by taking a screen shot, or by figuring out a way to undelete it. I think most kids are now aware of this, but initially, there were many instances of kids sending images or text to somebody that was later used against them. Many parents are aware of this history with Snapchat and so don’t let their child have it However, many other apps (e.g., Instagram) now also have a ‘disappearing’ function, which is why it’s so important to educate yourself. Below are some recommendations for figuring what apps you are comfortable with your child having:

  1. If possible, have your child’s device be registered in your name (e.g., with your apple id), so that your child can only get new apps that you approve of;
  2. For apps your child wants, get it for yourself as a trial. You can also get your child to teach you about it, and you can then even use it to interact with your child, which might actually be fun;
  3. If your child wants an app really badly, and you are unsure, get your child do the research on it. When my child wanted snapchat, I made her educate herself about the controversy surrounding it. Within two days, she provided me with a very balanced, thorough report on the pros and cons of snapchat.
As kids get older and spend more time away from their parents, the risk of being exposed to racism, sexism, or homophobia inevitably goes up. Technology doesn’t change this, although we do know that people are more likely to say and do things online, where they are protected behind a screen, than they would in a face2face setting. This means that youngsters are likely being more exposed in an online environment.

In addition, young teens have access to an array of social media sites with pictures, videos and stories, so this is also the start of how their online image will form. Creating profiles on social network sites such as Instagram and Snapchat is a way in which tweens can express their personality through digital media. It’s important that they understand the impact of interacting with others and representing themselves in a socially responsible way.

To ensure this happens, you can have ongoing conversations with your child about digital citizenship. Media Smarts has lots of great tools and resources on media literacy and digital citizenship that are targeted for both parents and youth. General conversations about healthy relationships, and modeling empathy and compassion in offline settings can also support this.

It’s sometimes hard for parents to think they can play a role in their child’s online world. However, much of what your child is doing online is socially interacting with others, and you have a lot to teach them about healthy relationships, including the importance of empathy and compassion. Unfortunately, technology-mediated communication makes it harder to engage in socially responsible communication. First, we know that 80% of communication is non-verbal, and we lose this when interacting via technology. Emoticons can help, but they can’t replace the subtle cues that are present in face-to-face communication. Secondly, we know that being protected behind a screen means that people will say and do things in an online context that they wouldn’t do face-to-face. One of the things you can do is teach your child these pitfalls of online communication. Use your own examples if you have them (haven’t we all sent an email that wasn’t received as intended), or better yet, show your child how it works. Send them an ambiguous text message (ideally one that could be interpreted negatively) and then talk about differences in what you intended versus what they interpreted. This will hopefully help them be more resilient when they receive potentially negative messages, as well as help them understand the potential impact of their own messages. The more that you can get kids to see past the technology and to recognize that they are interacting with another person who has feelings just like them, the more likely your child will avoid problems like cyberbullying.