How Can I Get My Teen to Stop Posting Inappropriate Things Online?

You're not alone if you're worried about what your kid is sharing on social media. Here's advice on how to talk to them about it.

An illustration of a mom looking at her phone.
Photo: Illustration: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong.

Mom Not Loving Social Media

My 16-year-old daughter loves social media, but I hate what she posts. Whether it's a provocative selfie, an Instagram story, or a ridiculous comment to a friend, I just find it all so inappropriate. I don't know what to say to make her understand without her just ignoring me or even blocking me. Is there anything I can do?

—Mom Not Loving Social Media

Dear Mom Not Loving Social Media,

Is there any greater generational gap between our children and us than the digital divide? I find that one reason we struggle so much as parents with issues like cell phones, screen time, and social media is that we have no reference point for the modern digital world. With so many other parenting issues, we can reflect back on our own experiences growing up. With the current digital reality—including rapidly changing options that make it hard to keep up—we really have no template.

My parenting instinct has been to avoid and restrict all things social media, but that only works for so long as I now have two tweens. I have also realized that this approach does my children no favors as they get older. They need to learn responsible use of the internet and social media because it's not going anywhere. Instead of easing my anxiety by instituting an all-out ban until they no longer live with me (obviously not going to happen), coaching them along the way ultimately helps them more.

Hear Your Teen Out First

I'm sure you are already aware that lectures just don't work with teenagers. It will be more effective to come up with a plan for a discussion, guided by some of your goals, while also showing openness to hearing your teen's perspective.

  • Start by asking how your teen makes decisions about what they post instead of focusing on the impression that they're not thinking at all. It may be interesting to hear what guides their decisions, even if different from your idea of "good judgment."
  • Explore your child's understanding of online safety, including the risks of posting provocative selfies. By this point, your teen has probably heard it all, so it would be helpful to know what they've internalized and what has been dismissed. Hear your kid out before you share your concerns.
  • Focus on the future. What is important to your teen about their future, and have they thought about how published posts now may risk this future in 10 years? Teens love to live in the moment and truly have a harder time looking far into their futures, but if you can tie it to an important life goal, it may resonate more. For example, does your teen hope to go to a certain college or get a job someday at a successful firm? Let them know that school administrators and employers do look at online activity. Ask your teen to consider what they would think if they Googled them.

Offer Self-Monitoring Strategies

Hopefully, this dialogue encourages your teen to consider using some strategies to improve decision-making about what they post. One recommended strategy is the "front yard" test: "Would you be OK with each post, comment, or like being on a huge sign in your front yard?"

Another guideline is to apply the THINK method: Is your post or comment True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and/or Kind? The "H" for helpful also includes ensuring it is not harmful. (I'm sure we all know a few fully grown adults who could benefit from these strategies!)

Finally, go through privacy settings for each app together so you can see what they have set and why, and make your own recommendations to ensure safety.

Manage Your Own Expectations

While working through all this with your teen, you may need to do your own self-check too. What does "inappropriate" mean to you, and what are your specific concerns? Do you see potential harm from your child's social media behavior, or do you just have a hard time relating to it?

A major downside to the prevalence of social media use for teens is how much we can actually see. Instead of ridiculous conversations from our adolescence that dragged on for hours on phones with long cords, these are now public. With this comes extra responsibility on their end of being more aware of what they are saying and sharing, but it's also kind of an unfair microscope on daily interactions. It might help to define "inappropriate" and clarify your expectations for more appropriate behavior. For example, is the "ridiculous" comment to a friend silly in an age-appropriate way, or is it unkind and harmful?

Teach Autonomy

You have a child two years away from legal adulthood, also likely in the phase of "my parents don't understand," limiting how receptive they might be to your guidance. Research shows that adolescents do not change behaviors due to fear-based messages (like with drugs and smoking) but can be more responsive to messages of how they are being manipulated (for example, the tobacco industry) or negative social consequences. Parents telling kids not to smoke or do drugs has actually shown to have the opposite effect, with those teens more likely to do it! Instead, messaging centered on threats to teens' autonomy work significantly better.

Leveraging what we know from anti-smoking and anti-drug campaigns, focus on your teen's autonomy and agency. It may seem counterintuitive because the instinct is to see our teens' irresponsible behaviors as meaning they should have less autonomy, but this just doesn't work.

Instead, encourage your kid to take ownership of their social media behavior in a way that preserves their integrity and protects their future. Remind them that social media apps benefit financially from an individual's dependence on them and are designed for addictive use, which hopefully helps your teen to want to increase their agency within their use of social media.

The Bottom Line

Even as we wish for the simpler days of no social media, it appears social media is here to stay. Although some of the stakes of our teens' online presence feel higher, it's also just another developmental opportunity to help them build critical life skills for decision-making, using good judgment, and increasing autonomy. The reality is a kid is the master of their online domain, now and for the rest of their digital lifetime. So, instead of getting them to listen to you, listen to them first and then collaborate on how to approach their online presence with responsibility and thoughtfulness.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

Read More Ask Your Mom columns here.

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