Social media use among teenagers in the United States has more than doubled in the last decade and nearly 1 in 5 teens reports using social media apps “nearly constantly” to communicate with friends. With the abundance of online social spaces for teens to communicate, including video-focused and gaming-centered platforms, is it any wonder that parents are struggling to keep up with their child’s online life?

In the previous decade and a half, social media was a new concept for the general public and kids’ internet use was more limited. Today, with the proliferation and ubiquity of smartphones, being constantly connected is normal for even the youngest members of our families. Gone are the days when parents had a single “connected” device at home that could be easily monitored; no longer can a parent keep a wary eye on a couple of apps. The number of spots online where kids can connect with other users is almost limitless.

How are parents supposed to keep their children safe online? Many parents may not feel as technically adept as their children and have no clue which apps to view as potential red flags. Also, our busy adult lives make it very difficult to find the time to do as much electronic shepherding as we feel we probably should.

Many technology experts and child psychologists suggest switching your focus from policing phones, apps and web traffic to regularly talking to your child about what s/he does and who s/he talks to online. While there are apps out there that can help you monitor his/her every move, this is unlikely to instill positive feelings of trust and respect.

Additionally, teens can typically find ways around basic home content filters, browser histories and “app policing” using relatively simple and widely available tools like VPNs, icon-hiding apps and disappearing content apps (e.g. Snapchat).

Instead, have frank and honest conversations with your child about his/her online footprint, online safety and what to do when they run into an online situation that leaves them feeling depressed, anxious, uncomfortable or afraid.

These conversations can be uncomfortable at first but they are an important step in helping your child develop an understanding of how to interact in a positive, respectful and appropriate manner while online. Specifically, parents should discuss:

  • Online footprint: Does your child know that everything s/he posts or does online will likely be tracked and can be stored, possibly forever? We should all think twice before we hit the post/submit button.

  • Online behavior: The grandma rule is still effective. If grandma would be embarrassed by what you say, see or do online, you shouldn’t be doing it. Your child needs to know that you have expectations about his/her behavior online. It may not seem like it, but discussing rules and expectations does have an impact on your child’s behavior online.

  • Talking to an adult: Above all, your child needs to know that you are interested and supportive of his/her online life and are willing to talk about any online problems or peer interactions. Studies have shown that incidences of anxiety and depression related to social media are considerably lower in teens who feel that they have an adult in their life with whom they can openly discuss online situations that leave them feeling sad, anxious, afraid, uncomfortable or confused.

Attempting to regularly discuss these issues with your child will help your child understand s/he has someone to talk to when needed and goes a long way toward supporting good mental health.

If you would like further information or if you want to learn about specific apps your child might be using, there are multiple websites for parents that provide important information, tools and tips to help keep your children safe online. Commonsensemedia.com and familyeducation.com are both good places to start, and perhaps most importantly, both provide good information about how to start the conversation with your child about making good choices and staying safe while using social media.