Teens’ social secrets go deeper than parents think

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As the mom of two girls, ages 7 and 9, there are countless reasons why I’m freaking out about the teen years. But topping that list, at the moment, is the thought of parenting in the social media age.

My kids won’t be allowed to have smartphones until middle school at the earliest, but once the genie is out of the bottle, how will I possibly be able to keep tabs on everything they’re doing on Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and all the other yet-to-be created social networks?

Short answer: I won’t. But the findings of a new “CNN Special Report: #Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens,” shows why we parents should try to do a much better job of understanding what’s happening online.

“(Parents) just don’t get the impact that social media has on, like, teen’s lives,” said 13-year-old Morgan, one of the 200 eighth-graders from eight different schools who agreed, along with their parents and schools, to allow CNN and two child development experts to monitor all their posts on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook over a six-month period.

Even for parents who try to control their children’s social media use, the CNN study found a disconnect between what their parents think about their kids’ posts and how their children are feeling. Sixty percent of parents underestimated how lonely, worried and depressed their kids were and 94% underestimated the amount of fighting that happens on social media.

“Even the parents who would be the most vigilant about monitoring, I believe, most often, wouldn’t know enough to know the small hurts that sort of pile up on kids over time,” said Marion Underwood, a child clinical psychologist with the University of Texas at Dallas and one of the two experts who collaborated with CNN on the study.

We parents often don’t have a clue as to how subtle the aggression can be. I just learned that young people might post a group photo and intentionally not tag someone included in the picture, or, they might share a photo from a party or outing with the goal of hurting those who weren’t invited.

“When we were young, I didn’t know every party I wasn’t invited to. I didn’t see pictures every time friends, good friends, got together without me. Now they see all of it in real time,” said Underwood, who is also dean of graduate studies at the University of Texas at Dallas and a professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “And I think that’s very hard to take. And we maybe haven’t prepared them as well … to deal with it in the best way.”

What can a parent do?

So what is a parent to do besides screaming and longing for the days when “tag” was just a game on the playground?

There are actually some steps parents can take, the experts say, such as signing up for the social networks your teens are on and following them. Talking to your kids about social media is effective, too. If your teen gets off the phone and seems sad or upset, ask them about it. An encouraging finding from the CNN study showed that kids whose parents were more involved in their social media lives were less likely to remain upset about something that happened online.

“Kids who were experiencing some conflict on social media, be it with a friend or schoolmate, had very elevated levels of distress but that experience was mitigated if their parents were highly involved with monitoring their accounts,” said Robert Faris, a sociologist with the University of California, Davis and another child development expert who collaborated with CNN on the study. “So parent monitoring effectively erased the negative effects of online conflicts.”

Parents would also be well served by spending some time on the same social networks their teens are using just to get a sense of how they work and what impact they might be having on their children, said Underwood. She can relate; after she received a grant to study Facebook and began to post more often, she realized how excited she was when people “liked” what she said.

“It is really reinforcing to a middle-aged mother, so think how it feels to a young person,” she said. “So parents need to get on these platforms.”

Teens have always been concerned about popularity, but it takes on a whole new dimension when they can measure their status in likes, shares and comments. Parents can help their kids keep it all in perspective, said Faris, who is an associate professor of sociology.

“Encourage them to try not to keep score,” he said. “Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t worry if you’re not tagged. Don’t count likes. Don’t exclude other people. There are a lot of things that could make social media a little healthier for kids.”

And there’s another thing parents can do — encourage our teens to put their phones down from time to time and do something else, go shopping, head outside, have fun in other ways.

“Help them steer away from it because it’s really hard for them to do it on their own,” said Underwood.

Jay, a 13-year-old who participated in the study, said social media is addicting — but her grades went up once she put her phone down more often: “A lot of kids are going to be like, ‘She’s talking gibberish. I can totally multitask,’ and that’s what I thought until I put my phone away and I’m the happiest person I could be right now.”

What do you think is the best way for parents to monitor teens’ social media use? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

By Kelly Wallace