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Is Your Teen Obsessed with Social Media?

Here’s why that may be a very good thing.


Illustration by Jon ReinfurtWhen it comes to kids and social media, most of the discussion to date has been directed by parents looking for ways to stop the equivalent of a runaway train. “How do I set limits?” “What about controlling access?” “How do I keep my kids safe?”

Social media expert Jason Brand, a Berkeley psychotherapist, recently sat down with Diablo to talk about why parents should embrace technology. The takeaway? Using social media just might make your child more successful.  

Q: You tour the Bay Area giving a lecture called, The Connected Teen: a Road Map for Parenting Your Digital Teen. How did you get into this?

A: When I started speaking about kids and social media, the only other group that was doing this was law enforcement. I thought I could add a different perspective to the discussion. I see social media as a family matter, not necessarily a police issue.

Q: Police or no, there’s a lot of heat surrounding the discussion. How do parents make it more positive?

A: My feeling is that we need to frame the discussion about social media in a wider context that starts with understanding adolescence. Adolescence is a time of exploration, a time for developing autonomy. Social media provides that.  

Some of the discomfort I see coming from parents is because of fear. Parents may be afraid of technology because in many ways, it has created a fundamentally different way of living.

Technology has blurred the boundaries between public and private, between work and play. Teens are completely comfortable with this boundary blurring, this full-disclosure kind of authenticity. They have grown up with it. Parents have not. That’s one of the reasons parents are hesitant about social media. Technology is changing the character of relationships.

Q: Some of the fear coming from parents is based on real events, including cyberbullying and sexting. We’ve all heard the horror stories.

A: Yes, bullying is getting a lot of attention, and these incidents are very unfortunate. But bullying has always been a part of life, and we need to keep it in perspective. Instead of lecturing your kid about the evils of social media, pointing to isolated incidents, we need to create a new dialogue. Anxiety about cyberbullying has exploded to a point where parents may not be able to do positive parenting. The fear-based approach is only scaring parents and making kids more misunderstood.

Q: So, to quote a great statesman, the only thing to fear is . . . well, you know the rest.

A: (Laughs) Yes, fear is a big piece. It’s just dragging the discussion down. It helps to understand that kids are mostly using technology just as they should: trying out new apps, meeting new people. Technology makes it all so easy and fun. Is there anything more exciting than a device that gives you access to this new world? A device you can keep in your pocket!

But that doesn’t mean parents don’t have the right to share this experience with their teens. A parent might say, “That’s a cool app, Honey. Do you mind showing me how Snapchat works?” It’s not about monitoring, or command and control. It’s all about tone.

Q: OK, but how much is too much? When is it appropriate to intervene?

A: You need to know your kid. How much time and access depends on age and maturity. The best reason to limit social media is if your teen is experiencing problems. Are grades slipping? Is there a behavioral issue? Has social media become more important than anything else?

I have kids who come in with depression and anxiety issues. One of the first things I ask them about is their social media use. Are they getting enough sleep? Sleep deprivation is a key factor in depression. And it’s positively associated with kids sleeping with phones under their pillows.

There should be rules and limits. The right amount of screen time is a discussion parents and kids should have, but it needs to go both ways. It can’t be top down, or it won’t work.

Q: If you trust your kids, do you still need to monitor their social media use?

A: I have this great quote from a parent in one of my workshops, who said, “You know you are at the right place in the social media discussion with your kids when you get bored of looking before they get bored of showing.”

How do you get to that place? It’s human nature. Humans are animals. If your kids perceive a threat—that their phones might get taken away from them for something you might see on their Instagram feeds—they will back away, they will protect their territory. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are hiding something. It may just mean you need to ask the question differently.

Q: How do you start the discussion without backing your kid into a corner?

A: Start from the place of trust and understanding. Get your fear in check. Set up ways for kids to show you that they can handle the technology. When they share something negative that might have happened online, say, “I’m so happy that you came to me with this.”

Pick your times to talk. Are they hungry? Are they tired? Wait until the right moment.

Q: What else can parents do to encourage good behavior?

A: Parental modeling is huge. And it’s a little tricky. Parents need to be asking themselves about their own social media use before taking it up with their kids. Kids are extremely aware of parents limiting their freedoms, especially when parents may be self-allowing. Never enter a power struggle that you can’t win!

Also, it does no good to find fault. The road to success with your kids is not in blaming. If you start from the place where technology is bad or their use of it is bad, then you are doomed.

Start from the place that technology is great. Realize that technology could produce the most amazing future for your kids. Encourage them to use it creatively. None of us knows where this is going. But one thing’s for sure: Our kids will have a digital future. They are going to need these skills moving forward.

Check out Brand’s book, 1-to-1 at Home: A Parent’s Guide to School-Issued Laptops and Tablets. jasonbrand.com.


Tech Tips: Keeping Kids Safe

Brand designed this Star (safety, trust, awareness, respect) checklist to help parents keep kids safe and improve the dialogue about social media.

• Google your kids—and yourself, for that matter—to see their digital footprint.

• Get smart about geolocation. Understand how GPS can disclose your child’s location.

• Know what apps are on your kids’ cell phones and ask them how they work.

• “Friend” your kids on Facebook and follow them on Instagram and Twitter—but avoid commenting.

• Set strong passwords and talk about not sharing passwords.

• Do a search of security settings for social networks, and help your kids use them.

• Check to make sure cell phone numbers are private on social media profiles.

• Talk with your kids about their favorite apps, sites, and games, and how they socialize with them. Ask if anything weird has ever happened to them online.

• Know when your kids actually go to bed and wake up.

• Keep devices off at night. Sleep deprivation is associated with depression.

• Treat tech like it is being used in a public space; avoid the secretiveness and snooping dynamic.

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