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  • Writer's pictureJames Marston

A Therapist’s Thoughts on Social Media and Children - Please Like and Subscribe! (Social Media Series, part 5 of 5)

Boy, is social media a mixed bag. At its best, it lets us foster communities and find people who prop us up and share important perspectives on things. At its worst, it facilitates the worst tendencies of humanity–out-grouping, bullying, bigotry, and self-loathing.

As a therapist, I think that some level of engagement in social media is inevitable. As children move into adolescence, they will seek out every opportunity to connect with peers and through doing so, define themselves. This is good!  This is a young person maturing as intended, and using the tools available to them to navigate the social reality of their lives. 

Like anything, there’s a healthy way to engage with social media and there are risks we have to mitigate. I’m going to focus on the risks and things I think are important to consider, but I encourage you to explore ways that social media can be useful and positive to teens.  

The first thing I think about is privacy and safety. Even before a child is old enough to be on social media, parents are posting about them, posting pictures of them, sharing stories about them. I encourage parents to consider that the information they are sharing online belongs to their children–parents are stewards of it until the child comes of age. I’m not saying not to share baby pictures, or that you can’t share your parenting stories, but I do think you should be thoughtful about how you share those stories. Are they about your child, or do they target your child? How will your child feel when they read it in 10 years? How will they feel about you sharing it?  

As soon as possible, we want to empower children to control their social media presence and their privacy. Just as much as we want to empower children to have bodily autonomy, we want to empower them to have autonomy over their privacy and boundaries. Check with your child to see if they’re okay with you sharing a story or picture, and respect the answer. We want them to internalize as early as possible that they own their image and information, and that every disclosure of it is a decision worthy of consideration. 

We want to teach children about privacy and that what is posted online should be considered public. Even things sent via message or e-mail that are intended to be private can become public, and we want to think twice before we send or post anything online. At the same time, we want to teach them about the importance of respecting other people’s privacy and keeping things private when they should be. 

We also want them to know when it’s okay to violate someone’s privacy when it’s appropriate to do so. Like if a friend says that they are going to kill themselves and don’t want you to tell anyone. Or if an adult says or does something that makes you uncomfortable and says it was private and you shouldn’t share it. Or if someone is bullying you and you’re embarrassed about it. 

We want to talk about perspective and subjectivity. If someone thinks something is right, and you think they’re wrong, what should you do? When do you let it go, and when do you say something? When do you alter your own opinion on something and when do you trust yourself? 

Do you compare yourself to other people online? Should you? What is it important to consider before you compare yourself?  If their life looks better than yours online, does that mean it is better? Is the number of likes a picture gets important? How important should it be? What does it mean when you DON’T get likes, does that mean the picture is bad? Does that mean you’re ugly? Does it mean you’re not liked?  

Teens will make meaning from what they see and hear in the social realm. We want, as much as possible, to guide them through that meaning-making process in a way that protects individuality and self-esteem, fosters kindness towards themselves and others, and does not make more out of social media than it is. 

We want to support our children in learning how to process and interact with what they see on social media. We want to make sure, early on, that we see what they are interacting with so we can help them identify potential problems and we can shield them from potential dangers while we are teaching them to identify those potential dangers. We want to encourage them to come to us when they see a pitfall or danger, so that we see that they recognize it and know how they handle it. Then, we start giving them more freedom and trust.


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