The Digital (Coming of) Age: Teens, Social Media, and a Parent's Role

Parents of Gen Z teenagers have many questions about social media and are looking for answers from experts in the field. Concerns include the time their children are spending on social media, problems caused by social media, and how they can monitor the online behavior of their children. Dr. Kelli Burns, an associate professor in the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications and author of two books on social media, answered some of those questions in two recent forums with parents.

Steinbrenner High School in Tampa invited her to participate in their award-winning panel called "World of a Teen" with parents and students Jan. 30. For the first year, Hillsborough High School launched the same program for their parents and students, which was held Feb. 21, and invited Dr. Burns to participate. Dr. Burns served on both panels with other experts offering a variety of perspectives, including mental health counselors, drug and alcohol experts, and college counselors.

According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, Facebook no longer dominates the social media landscape, with "roughly half (51%) of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 say[ing] they use Facebook, notably lower than the shares who use YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat". Adding to that, the study also noted that "95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45% say they are online 'almost constantly'".

Teens are also using sites for photo or video creation and dissemination, like VSCO for photos and TikTok for videos, and anonymous messaging platforms. Dr. Burns noted that because today’s teens are always engaged with what is happening on their phones and will check their phones many times throughout the day, it can often be difficult to set time limits, such as using the phone for just two hours a day. She suggested communicating boundaries for when the phone cannot be used, such as during meals or after bedtime (which might require placing the phone outside the room). Parents should similarly model the good behavior they expect their children to have.

In addition to concerns related to screen time, parents are also concerned about the legal ramifications of sexting, which involve a warning for the first violation for minors in Florida, but are more serious for adult teens. Other concerns include the distraction caused by social media and depression or anxiety caused by the constant comparison to others on social media.

...a 2018 Common Sense Media study that found that 46 percent of teens said their parents worry too much about social media

Another popular issue addressed by Dr. Burns, is whether and how parents should be tracking their teens using monitoring software. Dr. Burns advised parents to give their teens some freedom to express themselves and build relationships with friends without a parent over their shoulder. Furthermore, teens are very savvy and can usually outsmart a parent, but there are many tools on the market that offer different benefits, should parents decide to use a tracking platform.

Dr. Burns cited a 2018 Common Sense Media study that found that 46 percent of teens said their parents worry too much about social media, but that 54 percent said their parents would actually be more worried if they knew what really happens there.

The most important message for parents is that they need to be as informed as possible, model good behavior, watch for changes in attitude, motivation, and behavior in their teens as a result of using social media, and talk to their teens about how to handle common situations they may encounter on social media.

Published on: 4/5/2019