#parent | #kids | The Secret Social Media Lives of Teenagers


There is a very real biological basis for this behavior. The combination of social media pressure and an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that helps us rationalize decisions, control impulsivity and make judgments, can contribute to offensive online posts.

In a recent study, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that the areas of teens’ brains focused on reward processing and social cognition are similarly activated when they think about money and sex – and when they view a photo receiving lots of likes on social media. When teens viewed photos deemed risky, researchers found the brain regions focused on cognitive control were not activated as much, suggesting that it could be harder for them to make good decisions when viewing images or videos that are graphic in nature. Teens seeking external validation become intoxicated by sensationalist engagement, sometimes sending compromising photos or comments. Of course, some adults have fallen into the same trap.

Even though 86 percent of teens say they’ve received general advice around online use from their parents, researchers at Common Sense Media found that 30 percent of teens who are online believe their parents know “a little” or “nothing” about what social media apps and sites they use. And yet, teens still say that their parents have the biggest influence on determining what is appropriate and inappropriate online.

Adults need to shift the conversation around teens’ social media use away from a fear of getting caught and more toward healthy socialization, effective self-regulation and overall safety. This would be all the more important if a bill that was just overwhelmingly passed in the House becomes law. The bill could make it a felony — punishable by 15 years in jail — if teens send consensual nude photos of themselves.

Some parents try to monitor their teen’s social media use with apps of their own. Bark, an app that monitors accounts on 20 different social media platforms, along with iOS and Android texting and email accounts, alerts parents to potentially risky behavior. TeenSafe links teens’ phones directly to their parents’ phones, and allows full-fledged supervision of phone calls, emails, texts, social media use and geolocation. But such high-level monitoring runs the risk of breaching trust with teens at a crucial developmental time.

Another option is to help young social media users realize that their online and real-life experiences are more intertwined than they may think. Parents might, for example, cite current events, like the Harvard episode, to remind them that nothing online is ever completely private and talk to them about the ways private information can become public. Using open-ended questions will help encourage children to identify and develop their own values and standards around appropriate online behavior. Helping them think through how they might react or behave in certain scenarios can give them the confidence to make better decisions under pressure. Because in the end, teens’ online life choices can have real-world outcomes – as those students whose admittance at Harvard was rescinded learned the hard way.



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