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Dear Cassy: The three S’s of social media

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by Liz Schoeben

Much of the training on teens and social media advocates scare tactics to keep kids safe. I prefer another approach. Begin with a genuine interest in how they are communicating. Ask which apps, messaging and sites they utilize to communicate. Ask them to teach you about them. And there are always handy Youtube tutorial videos.

“Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World,” by Ana Homayoun, is a fantastic resource. She suggests filtering social media through the three S’s.

  • Socialize: how does your child handle disputes or conflicts? In person or through texting? Handling tough conversations through texting can prevent teens from building crucial skills that come from face to face interactions. Help model this behavior for them. If you have an issue to discuss with your child ask for some face to face time to resolve it.
  • Self-regulation: this entails regulating how much time we spend on technology. Human brains are not fully developed until 25 years old. The frontal lobe, while developing, causes increased risk taking and impulsivity. Understanding that goes a long way. Before asking, “What were you thinking?” Remember they were thinking, just with a teenage brain prone to risk taking and impulsivity. Again model behavior. How often are you checking your phone and allowing technology to interfere with family time?
  • Safety: think in terms of offering protection rather than being punitive. Don’t use scare tactics. Instead, educate.

No article on social media and teens would be complete without addressing sexting, the cell phone exchange of nude images and sexually suggestive text messages. Abou half of high school teens have engaged in consensual sexting.

Adolescent curiosity about sex is normal, universal and timeless. The method of exploration should not dictate whether something is a crime.Twenty years ago, sharing a Polaroid image of yourself did not initiate a ‘call the cops’ moment. But sexting can now lead to charges of possession of child pornography, and possibly lead to sex offender registration. Sharing photos without permission is different from consensual sharing, but must still be met with measured, appropriate responses, based on the circumstances.

Imposing lifelong consequences for teen behavior is contrary to adolescent development research, which confirms what parents already know. Teenagers are impulsive and often make bad decisions, but they are also malleable and capable of change. The mistakes they make as teenagers are not predictive of who they will be as adults. The law dictates that if you are under 18 and send nude photos to anyone, minors or adults, you are breaking the law. Our teens should know the law. But it should be used to inform them, not scare them.

Part of our job as parents is to help our children develop their own personal values. Broadly stated, personal values are based on how we treat others (family, friends, community members), how we treat ourselves and how we engage within our community. Do our kids’ social media use reflect their values? If not, how can we help them align their values with behaviors?

Liz Schoeben is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. In 2017, she founded CASSY SoCal (www.cassysocal.org), which partners with the Palos Verdes Unified School District to provide students with comprehensive mental health services.

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