Social Media and Teenagers: The good, the bad and the ugly

There are no easy answers when it comes to social media and teenagers, but blocking and absolute monitoring are rarely going to be the best approach.

A minor Twitter storm erupted today. OK, probably across the planet, millions of Twitter storms erupted. Twitter is that kind of social media service, after all.

But specifically, it related to this tweet, sent out by ABC Lateline host Emma Alberici:

I responded with my gut feel thought, which was this:

Twitter, though is an imprecise medium to have complex conversations, even with tweet threads. Context is easily lost, as is nuance. I don’t know much about Ms Alberici’s personal stance on much, but later in the day it seems like she’d hardened her line somewhat:

Now, that’s even more problematic, and I’d like to explore why in rather more depth than Twitter will generally allow.

But before I start, a general observation on parenting of any children or teens.

There is NO one single “right” way to do this. Parents will make mistakes along the way, and so will teenagers. Different family models can be just as “correct” as others (within reason) and what works for one teen might be 100% the WORST way to deal with another teen. Heck, what works one day might not be the right approach on the next day.

That being said, I found the initial premise, that schools should have the “right” to view the social media accounts of teenagers troubling on multiple levels.

There’s the practical side of it: Schools (especially those in our sadly underfunded public sector) are stretched mighty thin as it is. A thought bubble like this would need staff, funding and time. Which they don’t have.

Then it would need context and understanding of an entire conversation. I’ve had discussions over social media where I’ve entirely misread the tone of a conversation, and it’s not hard to see an overworked “school social media administrator” heading down the same path.

Then of course there’s whole “school ethos” problem if you do happen to be a teen with wildly different ideas or ideals to your school. Religious schools are the obvious candidate here for any teens who identify as LGBTQI, because that probably doesn’t match the “school ethos”.

But I’m sure there are plenty of others. While it is a good long time since I was a teenager, they’re not really “easy” years for anybody. Adding that stress (or taking away a support network of those who might help and support teenagers) of being spied upon by your school is unlikely to help matters. Treating all social media as innately suspect ignores the positive good it can do for marginalised or lonely teenagers. Or indeed anybody.

What about the second point on blocking for under 16 year olds?

Well, the theoretical reality there is that most services do “present” an age limit of 13 years, which should only give that a 3 year window. That being said, I’m not going to be obtuse and say that nobody under 13 ever accesses those services, because that would be daft.

It totally happens, and in fact plenty of parents enable their children to do so. Equally, I’m not going to ignore that they can be serious areas of concern for parents and teenagers alike, as the entire online world can be.
Again, though, I don’t think “blocking” or any kind of legislation is a sane answer to the problem, for two primary reasons.

Firstly, a legislative block is by definition going to trail the technology significantly. You’d have to legally define services, only to have new ones pop up. Even if you left the service definition incredibly broad, you’d then have to actually compel companies based overseas to comply with Australian law.

Good luck with that.

But really, it’s more fundamental than that, because while I’m no longer a teenager — even the clothes I still own that I had when I was a teenager aren’t teenagers themselves — the reality is that young adults will work ways around blocking one way or the other. Indeed, it adds to the thrill.

Don’t believe me? Kids in schools are already using word processing software as a social network.

Frankly, I’m impressed with the thinking and creativity that goes with that kind of approach.

But as I said, there’s no one “right” way to approach this. All I can do is talk about what I’ve done with my own teenagers, which, so far, mostly works.
Yeah, I said mostly works. I’m not perfect, they’re not perfect and as any parent knows, you’ve got to deal with constantly shifting goalposts as a parent.

What I do is talk to my kids. Constantly. Have done since they were young. I took the decision years ago not to share lots of details about them online (you can read about that here)

As such, I discussed with them getting social media accounts when they turned 13 if they wanted to. So far, they’ve slowly accepted the risks and used them sparingly. I’m on their lists of friends to see images and the like they post for the world to see, but I discuss the use of private chat with them without snooping on what that chat would be.


Because I’d rather treat them like adults. Sure, when you have a 3 year old having a tantrum, you don’t give into that, and you block access to things because 3 year olds are children. Teenagers are in the process of becoming adults, as scary as that is.

Adults make mistakes all the time, and it’s often the way we learn, but adults also implicitly trust each other. Yes, I could insist on seeing everything they’re posting and sharing with their peer groups, but doing so would mean they’d never trust me.

Do they tell me everything that’s going on in their lives? No — they’re teenagers, and they’re busy discovering themselves. Did you tell your parents everything you did when you were a teen? Yeah, thought not.

Social media is a form of communication, for good or bad, and sometimes both. Open communication with your teenagers is going to be so much more powerful than blocked or monitored communication could ever be.

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