Social Media: Setting guidelines and building digital resilience

In this week's edition of The Journey: From Boys to Men, we explore social media use in teenage boys and get some expert advice on how to maintain a healthy balance between the real and digital world.

You know you’re getting old when your teenage son excitedly asks you to look at something on his phone then:

  • he holds it so close to your face that can’t work out what you’re supposed to be looking at; 
  • when you hold the device at sufficient arm’s length for your ageing eyes, you have no idea who this YouTube or Instagram ‘star’ is; and
  • you can’t understand what’s so funny about this video anyway!

When my son was first given his mobile phone in Year 7 I naively took quite a laissez-faire approach to social media.

Following on from encouraging him to think critically about the TV shows he watched, I wanted to - and believed I could - trust him to be judicious in his social media use.

Additionally, given my background in media and marketing, I see social media savviness as a valuable skill if used appropriately.

But peer pressure and the lure of the candy buffet that is social media proved way too strong for my appeals to be discerning and I could see my son being sucked into a vortex of totally inane videos and games.

Recognising that I was in over my head, I went to the experts for help. Well-known speaker and writer on boys Michael Grose told me that this is common among boys, who typically use social media more for entertainment, while girls tend to use it mainly for communication.

The first thing he suggested was to set boundaries.

Mr Grose says mobile phones should never be used in the bedroom, during meals, or at the homework desk, and never an hour before bedtime.

He strongly suggests that boys pay for at least part of their mobile phone bill with their own money.

This, more than mum and dad’s pleas to get off their phones, should be a strong incentive for boys to keep a healthy balance between some digital downtime and all those other things they should be doing in the real world.

Dr Arne Rubinstein, another nationally renowned expert on adolescent boys, urges parents to remind their children that a mobile phone is a privilege, not a right, and if they engage in inappropriate use then they will lose it. He added that parents should be able to see all social media use.

Beyond rules about how much and where our kids can access social media, it’s equally important to foster digital safety, resilience and ethics.

Some of the keystones of digital security are keeping passwords safe and not engaging with strangers online or sharing private information. Many teenagers are taught about this at school but it’s worth backing this up with a frank talk at home about the consequences of risky behaviour.

I made my son watch the UK docu-drama Cyberbully, starring Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams. This had a powerful effect on him and opened up a good discussion about cyberbullying and sexting, including the legal implications of these behaviours (see references below).

Martine Oglethorpe, a mother to five boys with a background in secondary education and a Masters in Counselling, echoed my own thoughts on digital resilience.

As Ms Oglethorpe says: “With access to so much and so many, there will always be someone better looking - at least on Instagram - with more friends, more likes or more followers. There may always be a party they are not invited to.”

My son has given up telling me that “all his friends” are having “so much fun” during the holidays because I’ve reminded him of a couple of things I’ve read, which are beneficial for all of us.

One is a sign outside Lifeskills Counselling Service in inner-city Perth that says:“Don’t compare someone else’s highlight reel to your everyday life!”

Another was an article about Dutch student Zilla Van Den Born, who faked a five-week overseas holiday by manipulating photographs and posting fake Facebook statuses to illustrate the artificial nature of the platform.

Abuse and respect

I know too well from my work that the online world is full of judgments from people with a whole gamut of backgrounds, beliefs and degrees of knowledge.

As Ms Oglethorpe says,

Kids need to be able to recognize people whose opinions do not matter and be able to move on from their comments.

“How do they speak up in a group chat when someone is being excluded or spoken about in a nasty way? How do they deal with unwanted attention online?” she says.

These are all discussions we need to have on an open ongoing basis with our children.

My son says the best way to deal with online nastiness is not to engage with the perpetrator(s). I imagine this simple approach is easier for some kids than others and requires a healthy self-esteem based on meaningful connections with people and activities beyond the digital realm.

After some frustrations about social media use with my teenage son, I enjoyed that rare feeling that maybe I was doing something right. This happened after I had suggested he upload a funny picture of his little sister on Instagram, but he told me he wasn’t posting any more pictures of her after one of his friends made a disparaging comment on the platform about her smile.

So I gave him a pat on the back - and a gentle reminder to show respect and empathy online for people beyond his immediate family.

Lastly, critical thinking is more important than ever with the explosion of online content.

Ms Oglethorpe wisely suggests asking our children to think about the following questions when reviewing online content:

  • Why was this written or produced?
  • Is the language biased? 
  • Are they trying to sell me something? 
  • Is there research to back up their claims?
  • Is this worth my time?

The last question in particular is great advice for all of us, especially when a teenage boy puts some ‘really funny’ video right in front of your eyeballs!

Sources and further information