Help teens balance the benefits and risks of being online

John watches his twin pre-teen girls taking selfies non-stop. He doesn’t understand why they are making weird faces to their cameras or taking the same picture over and over again. When he asks them what they are doing, they roll their eyes and say, “We’re snapping with my friends.” John assumes that snapping has something to do with the pictures, but he worries that his girls may be at risk with so many pictures online.

Nearly all children and teens that have access to a computer, tablet or telephone use the Internet daily. Children and teens most commonly go online to text (87%), visit social media sites (e.g. Snapchat, Instagram,) (83%), email (77%), instant message (63%), video chat (59%), online game in multiplayer forums (45%), visit virtual worlds (e.g. Minecraft) (35%), write blogs (28%), and Tweet (27%). 

There is a huge discrepancy between what our children and teens are doing and what we perceive them doing. We, as parents, vastly underestimate the time our children are online and have poor accuracy in describing their online activities. The reason is that we are usually unaware of the apps are children are using because they change so quickly.

At the time of this writing, the most popular apps used by children and teen are:

Messaging apps

  • WhatsApp lets users sent texts, audio, video, and photos to one or more people simultaneously with no limits or fees. Adolescents like this platform when their parents have put limits on their phone based text messaging.  And, the text messages do not show up on the family phone bill.  This allows teens to have a second online life when mom and dad are trying to monitor them.

Temporary apps

  • Snapchat is an app that sends pictures or micro videos of up to 10 seconds that can be modified by static or dynamic filters.  It is probably the most popular app for teens because they think that their messages disappear after being watched.  However, this is not true in all cases because Snapchats can be captured and remain online forever. However, this misunderstanding empowers teens to send “snaps” that perhaps they normally wouldn’t.


  • Instagram creates a digital photo album that users can comment on or “love” by pressing a heart icon. The platform is like a huge popularity contest, heavily used by girls, because it gives public validation. It’s like choosing to be in high school for the rest of your life, only more public.

Video sharing 

  • TikTok allows users to create 3-60 second looped videos.  The video is then share on TikTok’s own site or uploaded to Instagram or YouTube. Some of the content of these videos is explicit or inappropriate. It is popular among kids who like MTV’s Ridiculouness. Some videos take on a cult status that encourages other users to post similar videos which only perpetuates a certain level of ridiculous-ness.

Nothing about these apps is inherently positive or negative. It all depends on their use.  It is only normal that our children and teens have higher incidences of negative experiences online because they lack the lived experience, understanding and judgment that adults have, which can put them in risky situations.

To help balance the benefits and risks, here are few simple things you can talk to your teens and tweens about to help them navigate safely:


  • Bullying has changed with social media.
    • Aggressions become permanent. When someone is being bullied, a spectator or the aggressor can record the event, upload it and share it across multiple platforms. An unlimited number of viewers can then watch and comment on the event. This creates a cascade of humiliation, meanness, and continued aggression without any accountability. Of course this is devastating to the victim and makes them relive the event multiple times without hope of it ending.
  • Cyberbullying can be covert. 
    • Harassing, hurtful, or critical comments, lies or rumors can be sent out publicly across social media communities without the victim knowing. Often times, victims are surprised when they find out and are unsure what to do when the message has already spread without any way to pull it back or defend themself. Similarly, the aggressor does not see the consequences of his or her actions on the victim and can grow more outlandish in future attacks.

To help reduce cyberbullying, teach your children to behave the same way online as they would in person. If they wouldn’t say something cruel to someone personally, then they should not post that message online anywhere. Our children can feel more empowered behind their screens and lash out at others because it doesn’t result in an immediate consequence as a face-to-face interaction would. We should strive to teach values that help them reflect on how they are feeling, consider what the other person would feel and evaluate other options that are more respectful before acting. This is a learned skill that will take time to develop, but they will only learn it with our guidance.

Social media depression

Some children and teens develop symptoms of depression after spending too much time on social media. This depression is linked to feeling unpopular because they do not get enough “likes” or have enough “followers.” The egocentrism of adolescence leads our teens to compare real life to the beautiful, glossy images that others share on social media. It’s an understandable reaction because children look to their peers for confirmation and reaffirmation while searching to figure out who they are and where they fit in the larger world. Having so much information about others can make our kids feel like they don’t measure up in comparison to others.

Our job as parents is to teach them about the false reality of social media. We have to educate our kids that someone may have taken 100 selfies and spent hours applying filters to a photo that looks “natural.” Also, we need to explain that our self-worth and self-esteem is not made from what other people think of us, but what we think of ourselves. If we are doing what we set out to do, to the best of our abilities, and are proud of our work, then we have succeeded. We cannot put that information out into the world and wait for everyone to give us feedback. Teaching this lesson will help our children invest their time and energy in things that last rather than chasing after an impossible dream that is merely an illusion.

Digital footprint

Many children and teens cannot comprehend the permanent mark they leave in the digital world with their social media pages, online shopping, video watching, and general cruising of the Internet. Most webpages use Cookies to track user preference and then target marketing to the viewer. Our children and teens may unintentionally draw attention of commercial users that may introduce products or services that are inappropriate. 

Additionally their postings on social media pages may seem like good fun in the moment but may later have consequences on school or employment opportunities. Universities, scholarship programs, and employers frequently Google applicants to get a better feel of who they are. Embarrassing, compromising, or unflattering social profiles may have a negative influence in the future.

To help avoid problems in the future, it is very important to teach our children that everything they post and do online is potentially public and permanent. A quick action they can learn to help reduce their risk is: “Will I want everyone to see this?” before posting pictures or writing comments. If the answer is, “No, I wouldn’t want my grandmother to see this or my school principle,” then they should not post it online. Assure them their future selves will thank them for taking that moment of reflection.

As with everything, our kiddos need our help and assistance to safely navigate this world – whether real or virtual. Being proactive and helping them understand there may be consequences to their actions before there is a problem is the best way to keep your child safe and connected while online.

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