16 March 2018

How can parents support young people to safely navigate social media?

How can parents support young people to safely navigate social media?

by Dr Jo Robinson, Sadhbh Byrne and Eleanor Bailey - Suicide Prevention Research at Orygen

Parents often report difficulties balancing respect for their teenager’s independence with wanting to supervise their child’s online life. As one study notes: “almost all parents feel that their children need on- and off-line space to mature as they get older, but they aren’t sure how to monitor it”1. ReachOut reported that more than 40 per cent of parents in a recent survey were worried about their children’s social media and technology use2. Parents often feel unsure how to best address these concerns. 

In recent months, young people’s social media use has received particular attention following highly publicised instances of cyber-bullying and youth suicide. Today, on the National Day of Action Against Bullying and Violence, it is timely for us to share insights that will help parents support children and teenagers in safely navigating social media. As researchers in the field of youth mental health, we work closely with young people to understand technology and its role in protecting, and sometimes undermining, their mental health. When we asked Orygen’s youth advisers: ‘what do parents need to know about young people’s social media use?’ young people responded by highlighting the positive role social media plays in their lives:
 
“Parents should be aware that young people in 2018 are using social media to keep in touch with their friends in a very real and meaningful way. Friendships maintained using social media are valid friendships and the use of technology to connect with others is normal today. Social media use is not necessarily inherently unhealthy. If individuals are able to set limits for themselves, and use social media with self-awareness and discretion, then it can be a very positive tool.”

“Social media is an important part of young people's lives, and connects them with their social groups. For the most part, using social media is a really positive experience, and you should be open and accepting of your children engaging with it.”

Correspondingly, three-quarters of young people who participated in a survey conducted by the Office of the eSafety Commissioner said they use social media to keep connected with friends and family3. This active (compared to passive) use of social media has demonstrated benefits for overall mental wellbeing4-10 and life satisfaction10. Indeed, the young people we spoke to identified active social engagement as a particular benefit of social media:

“Social media can be a great way to keep in touch with people around you that you don't get to see as much as you would like. With social media, you can maintain friendships with people overseas or people who live far away. It can be a way to feel connected with different people in your life.”

Young people also use social media as a direct source of support for their mental health. For example, social media has been shown to:

  • provide a space for empathetic understanding and community,11
  • reduce isolation,12
  • facilitate the exchange of peer-to-peer support,13, 14
  • facilitate help-seeking,15
  • facilitate the sharing of information and resources,16
  • enable young people to receive professional support or treatment in a non-stigmatising way.17, 18

Parents’ role in harnessing the benefits for young people

Digital communication is integral to young people’s lives, and expert opinion suggests that restricting access transforms smartphones and social media into ‘forbidden fruit’19. Adolescents often withdraw following excessive parental monitoring, resulting in a less trusting relationship in which they share less, not more, information with their parents20. Excess monitoring and control can also affect young people’s ability to negotiate their own privacy21. In contrast, when the parent-child relationship is positive, adolescents willingly discuss personal information and concerns with their parents22, which, in turn, impacts positively on their mental health23

Therefore, it may be more effective for parents to focus on empowering their child to use social media in a healthy and safe way, and ensure that the channels of communication are open between them. Healthy family communication has been found to be critical to reducing risk-taking behaviours and improving health and well-being amongst young people24-27. Creating a ‘culture of conversation’ at home may help parents and young people to act in a preventive, rather than reactive, way regarding social media use28.This is especially important given that young people often find disclosing their distress, and reaching out for help, very challenging29

Safe and open conversation was also highlighted as a tip for parents by girls who participated in Facebook Australia’s #girltakeover workshop for Safer Internet Day, held in 2017. In response to this, we asked young people at Orygen what sort of language would be useful for parents to use when talking to young people about social media:

“They need to firstly outline their level of trust in the child, so the child feels valued and comfortable to tell the parents anything to do with their social media use. The parent simply needs to ensure the child feels that if anything bad were to happen in social media, they can confide in them.”

“My belief is that young people are more open to change when it is clear that the person offering advice is on their side. A conversation about healthy social media use starts with trust, and this is gained through honest and non-judgmental conversation. I think that when asked questions about technology, young people are happy to talk and explain it."

A parent might benefit from asking their child:

"What is Instagram?" or "Why do people use Snapchat?"

"I don't really understand Snapchat?" "Why do people use it?"

"What is an Instagram story?"; "Can you explain something to me?"

This type of language gives power to the young person by positioning them as the expert. They might then feel like sharing information in this context, as they feel in control.

"Hey, can we have a chat about…?"

"I'm a little worried about…"

"What do you think about this?"

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

What parents can look out for

Although social media access can deliver many benefits for young people, it can also be a source of distress. The challenge for parents is to distinguish between the ‘storm and stress’ that is often a normal part of teenage life30, 31, and behaviours that pose a genuine cause for concern32, 33. There are some warning signs that parents can look out for, that may indicate their child is having a negative experience online: 

  • unexpectedly stops using their device(s),
  • appears nervous or jumpy when using device(s),
  • appears uneasy about being apart from their device(s),
  • appears uneasy about being at school or outside,
  • appears to be angry, depressed, or frustrated after texting, chatting, using social media, or gaming,
  • becomes abnormally withdrawn,
  • avoids discussions about their activities online.

If you notice some of these warning signs and are worried about your child, communicate your concern calmly and compassionately. You could say something like, “I’ve noticed that you haven’t seemed like yourself lately. Is everything OK?” If the conversation leads you to think that your child is experiencing low mood or feelings of suicide, it is important to ask if they feel they are at risk. Ask them directly and unambiguously – for example, "Many people who feel depressed think about taking their own life, is this something you are thinking about?" While many people express fears about asking this question, research has consistently found that asking someone if they are thinking about suicide does not increase their risk34, 35. In fact, acknowledging and talking about suicide may reduce, rather than increase, suicide ideation34. If your child answers ‘yes’, then don't feel you have to have all the answers. Remain calm and compassionate, and help them to find professional help.

In conclusion…

Social media is an important part of the world today, and plays a positive role in many young people’s lives when used safely. Communication is key to maintaining a healthy parent-child relationship during adolescence and is especially important regarding mental health. Parents can help their children to navigate social media safely by encouraging discussion, and being open to hearing young people’s perspectives. 

ReachOut’s five tips for parents whose child is experiencing cyber-bullying

  1. Make sure they know how to block, delete or report anyone who is upsetting them online.
  2. Stay up to date with the social media they’re using and how it works.
  3. Talk regularly about online issues and tell them they can come to you no matter what (even if they’ve broken the rules).
  4. Although it’s pretty normal now to have online friends, get your teen to think about the type of people they’re friends with.
  5. Treat cyberbullying as a serious issue so they don’t stay quiet if it happens to them or their friends.

Tips for young people to limit the harmful effects of social media

  • Be mindful of when an interaction or post makes you feel worse about yourself or your life.
  • Know when to take time away from social media.
  • Unfollow accounts that promote unrealistic or overly-edited images, especially if these make you feel bad about yourself or your body.
  • Report cyberbullying (to the platform itself, or to a parent, teacher or friend).
  • Seek professional help (e.g. from a psychologist, school counsellor, or helpline) if you are feeling depressed or anxious. 

If you need help now

  • eheadspace is a confidential, free and secure space where young people aged 12 - 25 or their family can chat, email or speak on the phone with a qualified youth mental health professional. 
  • Kids Helpline is a free, private, and confidential 24/7 phone and online counselling service for young people aged 5 to 25. Counselling is currently offered by phone, webchat, and email.

If you would like to learn more

Orygen factsheets

 

Disclaimer

Financial: Dr Jo Robinson has been invited to attend a meeting to provide advice to Facebook on how to improve online safety for young people, for which Facebook is covering her travel costs. Facebook is not making any other payment to Dr Robinson or Orygen.

Non-financial: Dr Jo Robinson is working with Facebook and a number of mental health organisations on a project aimed at developing online resources to support young people identified as being at risk of suicide. 

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