How to Help Support Teens’ Digital Well-Being
In today’s digital world, young people grow up knowing their lives are shared, compared, and often put under a social media microscope. Teens’ privacy boundaries may blur at a time when they are trying to discover and form their identities. When a digital footprint may mean they end up “canceled” by friends or rejected from a school or job, the pressure on kids can build quickly. With her new book, “Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World,” Devorah Heitner, PhD looks to empower parents to learn how to successfully connect with and support their teens as they navigate a world in which everyone is watching them figure out “Who am I?” We spoke with Heitner about the strategies she suggests for parenting teens in a world that is always “connected.”
CPTC: You talk about the concept of digital well-being in your book. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Devorah Heitner: Digital well-being is where our screens and tech make our lives better. And when they don’t, we’re putting them away, instead of having a life where it feels like they’re controlling us. We want to be running our tech; our tech should never be running us.
CPTC: Why is it so important to make the case for the digital well-being of young people?
DH: Young people have no choice about a lot of the digital environments they’re in. So, we need to give them as much empowerment, choice, and control as possible and make it a better, safer space. We’re telling them they have to be in these remote communities at school. We’re saying they have to use apps that track their grades and share their assignments. And social media participation can feel like it’s not optional for young people. So, as much as possible, given that young people are immersed in these powerful spaces that can affect the way they make choices about shaping their identities and relationships, we must do a good job of making those spaces as safe and thoughtfully designed as possible. And we need to help young people recognize what their options are when their experiences aren’t so good.
CPTC: So much of what we hear about our children’s digital lives is negative. You take a different tact. Tell us about your approach to our children’s digital lives.
DH: We want to be mentors and not just monitors of our kids. We don’t want to block their access or spy on them, because that will drive them underground. And it doesn’t prepare them for their eventual adult participation in these communities. Instead, we want to be doing as much as we can to teach them how to be thoughtful participants in digital communities now.
CPTC: How does digital well-being differ between tweens, teens, and young adults?
DH: For young people – like kids under 10 – a lot of the learning will be on server-based games like Roblox and Minecraft, as well as their early experiences with school-based tech and group texts. Sometimes, those experiences can be a lot. We need to help kids in those spaces, maybe by having them be next to us, not wearing headphones so we can hear how it’s going. And ideally, as our kids get older, as parents, we notice how our kids are doing in these spaces and where they’re struggling. Is your child struggling with impulsivity? With competitiveness? Are they struggling with feeling like they don’t know how to say no to people? Most kids will have things that are harder for them and easier for them to be successful in these spaces. So, the more we can notice what our own child’s experience is, the more we can help them.
CPTC: When teens share information about themselves in digital spaces, what should parents be guiding them towards or away from?
DH: Some spaces we know are bad for teens, for any kids, are things like pornography, for example. We want to keep kids away from that. I think a really important way to protect kids against the urge to search for pornography is giving them age-appropriate sex education, making sure they have access to accurate information about physiology, desire, consent and relationships, and sexual health and well-being. There are a lot of older teens who might experiment with Tinder, Grindr, etc. That’s not a safe space for them. So, we want to talk with kids. Most dating sites are not appropriate for kids.
We need to make sure they also have access to mental health information and community support if they need it – including in-real-life therapy – as opposed to needing to get all of their therapeutic support online. But there’s a lot of mental health spaces on the internet. And it’s great if you follow an awesome TikToker who talks about mental health that you love. But ideally, that’s not your only mental health support.
So, we want to make sure that kids are safe in these spaces. Maybe they’re on Snapchat, but they find streaks or snap maps particularly stressful. It’s important to talk with kids about the ways their friends are using apps that they like and don’t like, or ways that they feel like they might want to make a change. One thing I love to do is when I go into schools, I’ll have kids brainstorm ways that they might change an app that they love to make it better and more user-friendly and safer.
CPTC: Can you suggest a few important things that you want parents and adults to consider regarding their social media practices and how it impacts their children?
DH: Parents should always be thinking about honoring and respecting kids and their ability to shape their own narrative. As parents, we also need support. It’s been a rough few years. All of us can find parenting isolating at times. I think you should seek your support network and figure out how you can get support and visibility and celebrate yourself as a parent without sharing about your kid or compromising your kid’s privacy.
CPTC: What are some things you suggest to parents or caring adults concerned about their child’s sense of identity and how “likes” or “dislikes” they get online might impact it?
DH: We need to help kids understand the difference between friends and followers. You can quantify your followers, but for friends, you want to look at the quality of the relationship. Is this a supportive friendship? Am I showing up for this friend? Is this friend showing up for me? Do we have a shared understanding of what it is to be friends? It’s so important that kids understand that, yes, there’s followers, and you can “quantify” your TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and other connections. But that’s not the same. All those people have done is press a button. We want to help kids not get too lost in the quest for followers and likes and understand that these apps get us where we’re the most human – the desire to be valued or noticed. That’s tremendously powerful, especially for teenagers who are wired to seek peer connection and approval. So, we want to help kids find ways to feel like they matter and are connected in real life. Whether that’s in the home by doing chores that are crucial for the family or in the community, that can balance out some of the more hurtful aspects of social media where we’re all feeling like we have to wait to see how many people like our photo. Even as an adult, I feel it, too. But I think it’s even more difficult for teens.
CPTC: For those parents of tweens who are just entering the digital space on their own, what are three things that you would want parents to know?
DH: For tweens, it’s important to recognize that kids need boundaries. And they want to talk to you about this stuff, even if they say they don’t. It’s important to recognize that sometimes tweens feel like little kids. And sometimes they feel like grown-ups or older teenagers. That’s going to change, and they will want to be treated in those different ways. That’s tricky as a parent, because sometimes your kid is acting like an eight-year-old, but they’re in the body of a 12-year-old and they want the sort of freedoms of a 16-year-old or a 20-year-old. You ask yourself, “What do I do?” We just want to be empathetic. This is a time in life that’s challenging. Friendships are changing, interests may be changing, your kid’s body is starting to change in ways they may not understand. We know that now puberty comes earlier to some kids. So even though they’re not teenagers yet, they’ve still started puberty. And that may be something that’s unsettling to them.
We can help our kids by walking them through some of the apps they’re using, mentoring them, and helping them set limits. For example, maybe they’re in a group text and it’s getting toxic and uncomfortable. Do they have some strategies they can use to deal with conflict? Those can include getting out of the text, reducing the contact to just one-to-one texting, reaching out to someone in the group text who isn’t being nice and letting them know, setting a new boundary, or expressing solidarity with someone who’s experiencing targeting. These are all choices kids have in these moments. But often, our kids may not feel like they have choices. They may feel like they have to participate. It’s good to remind kids what their options are.
If a tween is struggling to make friends, this is an important age to help them find things they’re interested in. Encourage them to make some friends outside of school, whether that’s through a youth group or an interest they have. Make sure they have people they can turn to when the kids they hang out with at school aren’t acting very nice or things change. It’s good to have an alternative contact or group. Even if they’re acting like they don’t want to talk to you, you are clear that they can always talk to you and are open to those conversations. And if and when it comes up, when they’re all of a sudden spilling their guts to you in the car, for example, be really open to making sure you turn your attention to them and thoughtfully listen and support them. You don’t have to jump in with answers. Just be with them and have a mindful, caring presence.