Kris McDonald hasn’t faced many challenges when it comes to social media for her 16-year-old twins, Kayla and Alexis, and 13-year-old twin sons.
Mostly it’s because she’s been talking with them and teaching them about the risks and responsibilities online since they were little.
“I don’t try to police them per se. I don’t want them to feel like they have to hide things. I do talk to them and tell them what’s good and bad and the things to look out for,” says McDonald, the mom behind Little Tech Girl, littletechgirl.com.
“I remember when I was 16. … The world is different now, but it is still the same. We had our ways of communicating and they have their phones, and so we just have to be a little more vigilant when it comes to keeping our eyes open and our ears open and seeing what they are up to,” McDonald says.
Navigating social media can come with pitfalls, as studies are starting to point to shaken self-esteem, anxiety and depression for some kids. Social media also takes bullying to a larger audience.
Social media is always a hot topic in Kelley Kitley’s girl group talks for kids transitioning to middle school.
“Social media creates anxiety for kids by making them feel left out or fearful someone will say something about you,” says Kitley, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Serendipitous Psychotherapy in Chicago. “They also use social media as a tool of how well liked someone is based on how many ‘likes’ they get on a post.”
Paul Oren, a professor of communications and media at Valparaiso University, has seen that to be the case. He frequently gives seminars with students and athletes in high schools and local colleges about social media.
“We’ve figured out a way to make daily life a game, and Snapchat and Instagram and Twitter and Facebook have turned that into—as the documentary (Generation Like from PBS) says, it’s the ‘Game of Likes’ and we’re trying to win the Game of Likes.”
McDonald, Kitley and Oren all recommend parents have an open dialogue with their kids about social media and what could happen if it is misused.
McDonald’s tips for other parents: Make sure their accounts are private. Follow them on their accounts. Make sure they know to ignore private messages from strangers. Monitor what they are posting. Finally, look at their friends’ accounts to see what types of people they are associated with.
“It is equally important to give your kids a little bit of responsibility and freedom so that they can learn what they need to do to take care of themselves on social media,” she says.
“It’s like the equivalent of teaching someone to cook, but also reminding them not to put their hand on the stove. It can burn you, but you still need the stove to cook and it’s an important tool,” Oren says.
“Social media is an important tool and it should be used, but if you put your hand on it, it burns,” he says.
What area kids and their parents had to say:
Natelli Bulvas, Carol Stream
Uses Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook for about two to three hours a day
I started on Instagram when I was in fourth grade and since then I use social media to know what’s going on in the world and seeing new things come out. My favorite thing is there are people just like me or who I can look up to. Social media can be hard, though, because once one thing is out there, everyone knows it in a split second. If you post something, you have so many opinions rolling and can be judged, which is how I have felt a couple times. I’ve been digitally bullied by nasty comments that people have said behind the phone that they are too scared to say face to face.
Shari Bulvas, Natelli’s mom
I do random checks on Natelli’s phone and have all her passwords. She is only allowed to connect with people I know. I allowed her social media accounts because she needs to learn responsibility. But I do have the data shut off her phone three hours a day to focus on life outside of the phone world. Plus I no longer allow streaks on Snapchat because at one point she had close to 100 going and it consumed her day. Natelli did have an incident when she found out her best friend posted a private story bashing her on Snapchat. Kids don’t realize that once you post online you can never get it back and stuff spreads like a wildfire. I encourage my daughter to delete anyone who doesn’t make her happy.
George Holland, 13, River Forest
Uses Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube for about 1 1/2 hours a day
For me, the positive of being on social media is talking to my friends, seeing funny things online and keeping up with friends I’ve met that I rarely see. My favorite things would be streaks on Snapchat and talking to friends. I’ve never been bullied, but if I was I’d show my parents what was written or go to that person and see why they wrote what they did.
Jackie Holland, George’s mom
My husband and I follow George on both Instagram and Snapchat. I’ve gone into the settings to block YouTube and change the amount of time he can be on the phone. My kids always seems to be needing more time and sometimes I give in because they want to watch educational things, but I keep saying it’s becoming obsessive. I do like how they connect and see pictures of friends on Instagram. But I remind them they need to TALK to each other more. We did have a learning experience for our boys through a friend about how posting never ever goes away. It will be there stamped forever and can come up when they apply for college and jobs.
Jane MacEntee, 13, La Grange
Uses Instagram for one to two hours when not in school
I started using Instagram in seventh grade. It’s fun to see pictures of my friends and their vacations and pets and other things. I like to see what’s on Instagram, but I don’t really post a real lot myself. I haven’t been bullied, but I have heard of a few kids being bullied. If it happened to me, I’d probably get advice from my mom or shut down my account for a while to take a break.
Ellen MacEntee, Jane’s mom
I follow Jane online and I’ve asked her not to post too many pictures of her doing things with friends. I don’t want others to feel left out. If I see her on it too much, I tell her to put it away or I take it away for the rest of the day. She also leaves it downstairs to charge at night, so isn’t on it in her room at night. She thinks it’s fun to see friends who live far away or who are gone for the summer. She has cousins who live in another state and likes following them and keeping up with what they are doing. My concerns are that I don’t want her to post anything she will regret later, but so far she posts more on the account she has for our dog. It’s pretty innocent thus far, but she is young and she is also unusual in that she doesn’t care about it that much.
Julia Brummell, 14, Oak Park
Uses Instagram and Snapchat for about two hours a day
Social media has added to my life because I can contact people that I may not always be able to talk to in person or that I have lost touch with. I have made many friends by just Snapchatting them. My favorite thing is being able to see what everyone’s up to and finding new people to follow. But I’ve definitely had some struggles with social media. I feel very pressured to post something exactly right and that gave me so much anxiety that I actually deleted all of my posts off Instagram and had the app deleted from my phone for a solid month. Social media can be stressful and it’s very refreshing to take a break. If you’re being digitally bullied, always screenshot whatever messages or harassment that’s being sent to you so that you can show someone who can help you.
Lee Brummell, Julia’s mom
Julia was 11 when she got her first phone and we allowed her to get Instagram. A few months later she got Snapchat. We encourage her to limit her time and she’s very responsible about following the limit we’ve recommended. While it’s a positive for her to stay connected with friends, I also worry about too much time spent watching what others are doing. For some children, it’s stressful to feel left out of social gatherings. They’re constantly being reminded of things that they aren’t a part of and that can be stressful.
Ella Petruczenko, 13, Wheaton
Uses Instagram and Snapchat for more than two hours a day on her phone
Social media is so easy to use and I use Insta and Snap to text my friends. Snapchat is my main communication and I don’t really even have my friend’s phone numbers. To be honest, it’s hard when a friend doesn’t have Snapchat! I have never been bullied and I haven’t seen it because I feel like we chat on the apps with friends and don’t post mean things.
Joey Petruczenko, 11, Wheaton
Uses Instagram for about an hour a day
I like social media to find things out that my friends are doing. My favorite is then talking about it and knowing what is going on with them. I have never had a bad experience on social media or been bullied. If I ever was bullied, I would deal with it by blocking them so that they couldn’t do it anymore. I would then tell my mom and dad so they could contact the other kid’s parents.
Meghan Petruczenko, Ella and Joey’s mom
When Ella and Joey were given their phones, they were given “contracts” they had to follow. They were told the phone was mine and they were borrowing it. I do follow both of them on social media, and have full access to their phones at anytime. Unfortunately with Snapchat, messages go away so that’s probably why they use it for their main form of communication. It scares me they know way more about Snapchat than I do and they are able to delete without me ever knowing something happened. It also scares me that they allow almost anyone to be their “friend.” I go through their followers from time to time and delete people I don’t know.
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Chicago Parent. Read the rest of the issue.