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Preteens and Social Media: 3 Main Pitfalls and How to Navigate Them

We have all watched with some level of outrage as Facebook was outed for knowingly creating social media platforms that hook and harm children. The long term solution is to hold Facebook and other tech giants accountable for safe and healthy products, especially those designed for and used by children. 

However, in the short term social media is an immutable part of our kids’ lives, central to their identities and social interactions during their adolescent years. Given this reality, how do we help our kids stay healthy while engaging with these platforms?  

Here are the 3 major pitfalls your kid will face on social media and the skills they need to navigate them:

1. Conflict: Who is in, who is out -  these are normal parts of teen life.  The difference is that with social media, adolescent conflict is taking place on a highly public platform, where kids are exposed to it constantly. They can’t get away. Moreover,  comments can be posted anonymously, which often means the conflict is more brutal than what may be said face-to-face. The intensity and public nature of online adolescent conflict can quickly push kids into fear, humiliation, anxiety, depression and even to self-harm.  

Skill Set Needed:  To be safe on social media, kids need to develop the ability to manage and even stand up to this type of “hate.” This means:

  • Understand that hurt people hurt people.  Social aggression is about the other person’s pain, and NOT about the worth of the recipient. 
  • Stay in touch with emotions while online. Get OFF when it hurts too much. Seek solace and perspective from trusted loved ones (preferably adults). 
  • Put up a true shield. Declare, “Whatever haters!” and mean it! 

2. Comparisons: It is normal for adolescents to compare themselves to others - am I as pretty, smart, well-liked, athletic, wealthy, etc. as the next person? However, with social media kids are no longer comparing themselves to real-life peers, but to curated profiles, photos and videos - a never-ending scroll of people that look prettier, smarter, more popular, more fashionable, funnier, richer and skinnier. This can leave them feeling awful about themselves, and depleted from the effort to keep up.  

Skill Set Needed:  To stay healthy on social media, kids need to understand that chasing worth outside of themselves is a losing battle.  A sense of worth can only come from caring for ourselves as we are, and seeing ourselves reflected back positively through loving, supportive, accepting relationships. This is a lifelong journey, but they can start by:

  • Seeing  that the images on social media do not reflect the reality of people’s lives, but instead are performances and a facade. 
  • Understanding that the tendency to compare is normal and inevitable, so even if they understand the curated nature of social media, they may still have feelings of unworthiness online! Stay in touch with these feelings and take breaks when needed. 
  • Exploring what makes them feel more deeply worthy - contributing to the world, pursuing interests, mastering new skills, and developing loving, mutually supportive relationships with peers. 
  • Developing the understanding that this is the path to well-being and developing a commitment to following it.  

3. Connection: Humans have an innate need to feel connected to a group of peers, to feel liked, accepted and understood. This need is especially strong during adolescence because they face the developmental task of moving away from the family unit and into the larger community. The problem is that social media can give a false sense of being liked and fitting in. Kids can invest deeply in profiles, games, “friends” and ‘likes’ online and then find it doesn’t amount to a fulfilling connection. While many online interactions do lead to healthy connections, at times the virtual world becomes a stand-in for what teens really need, leaving them lonely, disconnected and at risk. 

Skill Set Needed: To be safe online, kids need to develop an awareness of when online connections become fake, paper thin and false. To do this, they need to develop the ability to: 

  • Understand that “shares,” “likes” and “follows” are stand-ins for what they really need,
  • Stay connected to how they feel when online, and get OFF when feeling lonely, disconnected, rejected or left out. 
  •  Build real-world relationships where they can truly share, be liked, and follow each other into adulthood.  

I know what you will say at this point: “Dr. Demi, no kid has that skill set!” and I agree! I have never met a kid who can do the things outlined above. These skills are complex and take time and awareness to develop. However, most kids can get there with guidance and support.  

What you can do now

Talk to your kid about these pitfalls of social media, and how to navigate them. Wait to give them access to social media until they have a basic understanding and ability to use these concepts. Work to stay connected to your teens so that they may come to you when they get stuck online. Remember Driver’s Ed - they are in training so, they will make mistakes.  Each mistake is an opportunity to connect with them, and help them grow their online skills and abilities. 

Navigating screen time with children is tough for most parents. If you need some extra help setting up an effective plan and/or teaching your child the skills needed for healthy and responsible screen time, we invite you to learn more about our program. We got you covered! 

Sign up for our newsletter to get healthy screen time insights and tips from clinical psychologist, Dr. Demi Rhine.  

About Beyond Limits Academy

Beyond Limits is a simple step-by-step online program that teaches parents and preteens how to prepare for a lifetime of safe and healthy technology use. Going beyond just screen time limits, our skills-based approach provides a clear roadmap that reduces conflict and sets children up to manage their own tech use independently and responsibly. In an increasingly digital world, preparing our children to use technology wisely is no longer an option . . . it's a necessity.
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