How Do I Curb My Teen's Social Media Fixation?

Between school and social media, kids face a perfect storm of expectations, anxiety, and potential bullying. Parents Ask Your Mom columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., offers tips for finding balance through boundaries.

Cliques and Clicks
Photo: Zoe Hansen

-Cliques and Clicks

My daughter made some new friends in her freshmen class, which is wonderful. But she's also become hyper-focused on her phone and social media, counting the likes on every post she makes and discussing them with her new crew. I don't want to take the phone away, but I do think I need to curb screen time a bit. How do I limit social media usage without causing friction with her friends? 

—-Cliques and Clicks

Kudos to you for thinking about how intervening could affect your daughter's social life. So many parents worry about the negative effects of social media, that they attempt total phone removal. This may solve the problem of hyper-focusing on social media, but will surely create others, like the teen feeling excluded and socially disconnected, and lots of arguing at home! You bring up a common parenting challenge of how to balance your teen daughter's social needs with limits important for her health and wellbeing. As I write my book, Parenting for Autonomy, the autonomy-supportive parenting framework offers a great roadmap.

The Science of Social Media and Teens

Parenting around social media brings unique and exasperating challenges. Parents don't know what it's like to be a teenager growing up in a social media world. Instead, we have regular doomsday headlines about how social media may be harming a whole generation (our children). Yet, social media usage has become so much a part of the fabric of our teens' lives that we can't realistically ban it forever. (Trust me, I've thought about it!)

The truth is the science on social media and teenagers isn't as slam-dunk as much of the media lead us to believe. In fact, your instinct is spot-on that social media usage can contribute to a happier social life. It can foster a sense of belonging critical in adolescence and offer social interaction that has benefits such as better mood. However, how teens use social media seems to be more of a factor than if they use social media. The aspects that seem especially risky to mental health are constantly making social comparisons that leaves teens feeling badly about themselves, and seeing "likes" as a proxy of worth and likability in real life.

Supporting Autonomy and Limits for Social Media Use

So, you have reason for concern. But the steps below based in the autonomy-supportive parenting framework address your concern in ways that open communication, build your daughter's critical thinking and self-awareness, and strengthen your relationship. A main premise of being autonomy-supportive is that you are increasing your child's sense of agency and internal motivation to change her behavior, rather than acting in a way that makes her feel like you are trying to control her. When teens feel controlled, they usually act out more, whether openly or sneaking around to get what they want. An autonomy-supportive approach focuses the parent role on teaching over punishing, which means the teen can learn instead of rebel.

  • Start with curiosity. Ask your daughter open-ended questions such as how does she decide what to post, and what do the "likes" mean to her? Does she have any concerns about the risks of social media? (You can reference the specific platform she favors.)
  • Try to understand her perspective. How does it feel when she gets a bunch of likes versus when she doesn't? What goes through her head? (This also helps her reflect on her internal experience, even if she doesn't have immediate answers.)
  • Based on how she responds to these conversation-openers, express empathy for her experience. This may include how being active on the platform helps her feel more part of her friend group, or the self-esteem boost from a lot of "likes."
  • Explain rationale for rules around her social media use. Share your concerns about the time she spends on her phone and social media, and that both are designed to elicit addictive behaviors for profit. Teens are known to not like feeling manipulated (this message was more effective in the anti-smoking campaigns than focusing on the harms of smoking). You can include information about known negative effects on mood, anxiety, and self-esteem.
  • Involve her in setting the parameters of these rules. Get her input on reasonable limits, and be flexible if your versions of "reasonable" are far apart. In this collaboration, include how these rules will be monitored (e.g., looking at screen time data on the phone), and consequences for not following rules (e.g., a certain amount of time without the phone).
  • Encourage your daughter to notice what it feels like to spend less time on her phone and social media, including if it creates anxiety that she is missing out. The hope is to increase her own self-awareness and critical thinking, while also maintaining openness with you to help her talk it out without feeling judged or criticized.

Finally, a huge part of having autonomy is acting by one's values. Your daughter may not know what her personal values are yet, but situations like these can help her figure that out, with your supportive coaching. This could look like asking her what's important to her in being a friend and qualities she wants in her friendships (such as not being judged as worthy based on how many likes a post gets!). This kind of conversation could open the door to what may be underlying her hyperfocus on "likes," which is feeling insecure in these friendships. Using this as an opportunity to help your daughter understand healthy versus unhealthy friendships makes your interactions about more than a battle over the phone.

The Bottom Line

Although the invention of social media brings up new parenting dilemmas, we can all relate to the social angst of being a teenager. New friends are exciting and offer a sense of belonging, but navigating new relationships can also cause insecurity. Unfortunately, social media is like a megaphone amplifying insecurities (for all ages). You may need to focus on establishing healthy limits around your daughter's phone and social media use, but using autonomy-supportive principles such as empathy and collaboration makes it a teaching and learning experience for both of you. You're not only supporting your daughter developing positive friendships, but you maintain yours in the process.

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 the upcoming parenting book Parenting for Autonomy. She is a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois, and 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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