When you think of social media, do you immediately envision Facebook? If so, you’re
not alone because Facebook continues to serve more active users by far than any other
social media platform.
If your first thought is Facebook, chances are you count yourself among the Boomers
or Generation X. Facebook is the platform where parents and grandparents share news
about children and grandchildren who would never consider having their own accounts.
In 2018, only 15% of teens admitted using Facebook as their primary platform, even
as 70% of them use social media daily, according to Common Sense Media. If you want
to see what those kids are posting, check Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, at least
this week. Next week, they may have moved on.
As pediatricians, we have a responsibility to provide relevant anticipatory guidance,
which means keeping up with the latest trends involving infants, children and adolescents.
From goat’s milk formula to Heelys (yes, they’re still out there), we have to stay
current. While there is a vigorous debate about how social media affect child and
adolescent mental health, there is no question that these apps permeate the world
of the young and hold a unique power to amplify all the experiences of growing up,
both the positive and the negative.
Fortunately, the best way to learn about young people’s social media habits is the
most obvious: Just ask. Recently, I learned that my 14-year-old son had achieved a
degree of celebrity on TikTok, racking up 400,000 views and 60,000 likes on a 10-second
video he shot during gym class. My first question was, “How?!” What had he done to
garner so many people’s attention, albeit only 10 seconds of it?
“See, Dad, I was making fun of being an E-boy.”
His answer took me deeper down the rabbit hole of youth culture. “And is that worse
than a D-boy but better than an F?”
“No, it’s just a type, like a clique.”
I had to put this in terms I understand: “In ‘The Breakfast Club,’ would it be Emilio
Estevez, Judd Nelson or Anthony Michael Hall?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess Judd Nelson? Does he wear a lock chain?”
I’m still not sure what an E-boy is, but we had a good conversation about my son’s
social world and where he sees himself. I learned that TikTok polices obscene speech
and nudity as strictly as it does criticism of Chinese government policy. I also learned
that the keys to success on TikTok often involve humor and originality. As a bonus,
he showed me his YOLO account, where people solicit anonymous opinions from others
about anything. To me, this looked like an irresistible invitation to cyberbullies,
but his comments read like a calendar of daily affirmations.
One challenge I face as the parent of five young people ages 14 to 21 is how to best
use social media to communicate with them. Last year, Business Insider’s eMarketer
column posted that Snapchat had surpassed Facebook in this age group, also eclipsing
Instagram, teens’ former favorite social media platform. I had joined both sites to
get a peer’s eye view of my kids’ lives and to share with them what I was doing when
we were not together. Just as I became passably proficient in posting to Snapchat,
my kids turned back to Instagram, posting their safe content for me to enjoy while
saving their edgier posts for their “Finstas,” a portmanteau of “faux” and “Instagram.”
Facebook was founded with the imperative to “move fast and break things,” and its
successors have taken the motto to heart. There is little hope that any adult, no
matter how hip, will be able to stay on top of every social media trend. The good
news is that we don’t have to. Instead, we must do what pediatricians are trained
to do: Ask young people questions and really listen to their answers. Whether those
people are our children, our friends’ children or our patients, they will tell us
what we need to know to guide them to the healthiest, most constructive uses of the
ever-evolving arsenal of technical tools at their disposal.
Tips from Common Sense Media
Have your kid use your app store account or an account linked to your email, so you’ll
be notified when an app is downloaded.
Consider making a rule, at least until they’re older, that they can’t download an
app or sign up for an online account without asking you first.
Ask which apps and sites are popular with your teen’s friends. Kids may open up more
when they’re talking about someone else
Share what you’re using. Show them your Facebook page, favorite videos or a game you’re
obsessed with. They may be inspired to reciprocate.
Dr. Hill is past chair and a member of the AAP Council on Communications and Media