Help kids to rise above the social media feeding frenzy

By Alan Ralph on

We’re now used to the idea that we should be monitoring our child’s social media accounts. But as well as looking at what’s being posted, are you also talking to your child about the pressure to be popular online?

Competing to see who has the most friends or followers, and which posts or pictures get the most likes, may start out as fun. But there are signs that the whole thing is becoming stressful for some teenagers, as they become overly focussed on competing with other adolescents.

In some ways, competing for status is nothing new – maybe back in the Stone Age, there were arguments over who had the coolest axe! Competing with our peers and working to achieve higher status can motivate us. It can be a way of getting access to scarce resources.

But arguably, it makes more sense when these resources are food, shelter and protection. In the developed world, the competition is often more symbolic and driven, in part, by advertising.

Think back to the olden days (pre-1990s!) when kids used to collect sports-star cards, records or CDs, or magazines. It often took time, money and real effort to collect these, and they were often limited in number.

Growing following on social , why is important to teens?

Now the number of ‘friends’ you can collect seems virtually infinite. But collecting friends can still take up a lot of time and energy – including emotional energy, worrying that there are never enough ­– and this could be put to better use.

So what does this all mean for your teenager? How can you help them to be part of a virtual world that is now a very real part of their social development, without being overwhelmed or left feeling like a failure?

As parents, there are two key aspects to manage:

Monitor devices and don’t allow unrestricted access

For healthy physical and emotional development, teenagers need a certain amount of physical activity and face-to-face human contact. Research indicates that both lack of sleep and too much screen time are having negative effects on kids’ social skills and obesity levels and, somewhat ironically, their social skills.

It’s not that “all screen time is bad”; a balance needs to be struck, so teenagers stay active and healthy and don’t lose the ability to communicate well with others IRL (In Real Life).

Help teenagers learn what real friendships are all about

We need to take on some responsibility for teaching teenagers that friends aren’t just people we find physically attractive or charismatic. This includes thinking about what our social life models for our children. Friends are people who make time to be with each other, who share some interests, and who care about each other through their actions as well as their words.

Friends do things together, enjoy each other’s company and find time to spend with each other, and are there for each other in bad times as well as good.  Many of the people our teenagers may refer to as ‘friends’ are merely contacts, friends of friends, or people who looked interesting online but with whom a face-to-face meeting is unlikely.

That’s not to say an online friend can never become a “real life” friend, but (a) that will take time and investment on both sides, and (b) by now your child should be aware that any online-only friend who takes a special interest in a deeper relationship, even just a “special friendship”, should be treated with some caution and discussed with family.

Help your teenager think about the kind of friend they want to be, and to have, online. For example, regardless of whether or not they are popular and attractive, does anyone really need the kind of “friends” who:

  • send unasked-for sexual pictures and/or expect to be sent sexual pictures
  • are emotionally manipulative
  • encourage criticism of others,
  • are self-centred and inconsiderate, and/or
  • seem to have no goals in life other than to achieve social media king- or queen-dom?

In other words, what’s a follow or a like worth if it comes from people you have no knowledge of or respect for anyway? And in a few weeks’ time, let alone ten years’ time, will anyone really care if that picture was liked by nobody or by thousands?

By helping your teenager get some perspective, recognise the competitive aspect of ‘collecting’, and learn to value themselves and others on less superficial qualities, you can help them be less inclined to measure their self-worth by the number of followers they can manage to collect – and perhaps see it as a game rather than a serious matter.

Talking and communication is key

All of this means you have to be committed to keep communicating well with your teenager/s. Sharing a meal, going for a walk, chatting before bedtime, travelling to school or activities – low-key, frequent conversations allow these important issues to be discussed in an environment of information exchange and care and support, not when a problem has arisen and everyone is stressed or upset.

Make a deliberate effort to do this and you’ll see the rewards in many other ways as your teenager develops toward adulthood. One day, maybe you’ll also be the best of friends.

Additional information

If you’d like more handy tips on how you can help your child get the best experience on social media, visit these pages:

Tips for chatting about social media

Social networking how to guides for parents 

Info for parents on social networking 

Social networking in online gaming

Image attribution: nofrills under Creative Commons License

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