“For most teens, the Internet is a fundamental part of life,” according to Dana Udall-Weiner, Ph.D, a psychologist who specializes in media literacy. It’s how they communicate and interact. Teens use social media sites like Facebook for everything from casual talks to breakups, she said.
With social media a major part of teens’ lives, it’s important they have a healthy relationship with the Internet. What does this look like?
According to Udall-Weiner, it resembles any healthy relationship: It has boundaries.
It also shouldn’t have to meet all their needs, including emotional, social, intellectual and spiritual, she said. For instance, sites like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest should never replace face-to-face interactions, she said. Instead, they should supplement them. That’s because online interactions lack the emotional depth and support of real-time relationships. “…[I]t’s hard to know whether someone is trustworthy, loyal, and invested in your well-being.”
The Internet also lets people keep a comfortable distance from others. Udall-Weiner cited MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who believes the Internet provides “the illusion of companionship, without the demands of friendship,” and “people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people, whom they also keep at bay.”
Fortunately, parents can teach their kids to use the Internet in healthy ways. Below, Udall-Weiner shared five strategies.
What Parents Can Do
In Udall-Weiner’s experience, parents approach Internet use with extremes: “they either prohibit it, or they pretend it doesn’t exist, since they’re quite terrified to find out what their child is really doing online.” Instead, she suggested communicating with your kids and teaching them to be more aware of how they use the Internet.
1. Talk to your teen about their time online.
Talking to your kids about how they use social media and technology helps them break out of autopilot and become more mindful of their actions and reactions, Udall-Weiner said. “[This] is an important skill when it comes to developing emotional competence.” It’s important for teens to understand how being online affects them (such as their mood).
She suggested asking your kids these questions: “Which websites do you often visit? How do you feel emotionally, both during and after using these sites? Have you ever had any uncomfortable experiences online, or seen anything upsetting? Do you believe that there are any downsides to viewing the sites you regularly visit, or to using the Internet in general?”
2. Teach your teen to be media literate.
A mistake parents often make, according to Udall-Weiner, is that they don’t teach their kids about media literacy. But it’s vital for kids to understand that what they see isn’t what they get online. For instance, “Parents need to actively remind their children that images are not reality—that no one is as thin, perfectly-muscled, unwrinkled, or flawless as that person in the ad.” She suggested visiting Media Smarts for more information.
3. Set time limits on Internet use.
Teens are still developing their executive functions, which include monitoring behavior, organizing information and setting goals, she said. Plus, spending too much time on sites like Facebook can make teens feel worse. “My clients regularly tell me that they become very upset after looking at Facebook, since everyone looks happier, thinner, or more popular than they feel.” So parents might need to set restrictions on Internet use.
4. Surrender all phones before bedtime.
“This is a way to ensure that kids aren’t up late texting or surfing the web, rather than getting precious sleep,” Udall-Weiner said. This rule also applies to parents’ phones, “since kids emulate what they see.”
5. Know the research about Internet use.
Research has suggested that looking at images of thin models — which are splashed all over the Internet — may be associated with various negative consequences. “After seeing these images, people report things like decreased self-esteem, poor body image, depression, guilt, shame, stress, and an urge to engage in eating-disordered behavior, such as restricting food intake,” said Udall-Weiner. She also specializes in body image and eating disorders and founded ED Educate, a website with resources for parents.
Research also has suggested that the Internet makes us feel more disconnected from others, she said. “It’s important for teens to know the research on Internet use.” Talk to your kids about these findings.
Udall-Weiner shares more information and tips on supervising your child’s Internet use in this video.