How Do I Set Social Media Boundaries With My Tween?

Children often discover how to access social media before we want them to, but we can take steps to make our digital parenting lives about mentorship instead of endless power struggles. Parents Ask Your Mom columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., suggests working together to set up reasonable family rules.

Kids and Social Media
Photo: Parents | Zoe Hansen

-Social Standards

My 11-year-old isn't allowed on social media, but has her own iPad for school work and other parent-approved activities. I recently learned that she created a private Instagram account. It seems pretty innocuous, but it's clearly against the rules we set for her. How do we address this and reinforce our guidelines without blowing things out proportion? Is 11 old enough to be responsible on social media?

—-Social Standards

In an example of feeling like we are parenting against the riptides of social and cultural currents, children are increasingly able to access technology before we are ready. As schools rely more and more on technology starting at younger ages, I often hear parents voicing their concern in my office. Your dilemma brings up several important struggles relevant for the modern parent: how to monitor a tween's technology use in a realistic way, how to set appropriate rules, and what to do when the tween (almost inevitably) breaks those rules.

Supervision and Suspicion

I could see how this recent experience with Instagram sneakiness would ratchet up supervision of your child's iPad use. I have learned through social media trials and tribulations with my children that although monitoring has a role, we do not want to set ourselves up for an impossible task. Not only does it take a lot of effort to remember to do a daily check of what's been happening on the iPad or phone, our children often know more than we do. We can set controls and check all day, but chances are they will figure out loopholes. It can feel like a bottomless pit of supervision and suspicion that ultimately is not serving our child, or our relationship with them.

Mentorship Versus Controlling

Experts offer a key research-based conclusion for parents in this digital age: be more of a mentor than one who restricts. If we can shift gears from trying to control our child's digital behaviors to teaching about living a healthy and responsible digital life, everyone benefits. It helps to manage our own expectations by anticipating that our children will have missteps as part of the learning process. Responding to these mistakes with the mindset of "well, this is a teaching opportunity" instead of "you have lost your iPad forever" is a step toward more effective digital parenting.

Controlling our child's digital behaviors is different from offering a healthy degree of structure. At this tween stage, external limits are a critical step toward a child eventually developing their own internal limits. I have seen well-intentioned parents restrict their child's phone use so heavily that when that child leaves for college, they do not have their own sense of how to manage time on their devices. We may think of rules as imposing our authority over our child's will, including the ensuing power struggle, but when we deliver limits effectively, children actually learn responsibility and skills for developing their own limits. The huge payoff here is how much less work this is for us over time as we watch our child build self-sufficiency.

The Family Who Makes Rules Together...

As a child enters the world of social media, have an open discussion about the family rules, the reason for the rules, as well as what will happen if the child violates these rules. The more collaborative this process, the more buy-in your child will have and the more likely they will follow the rules. Research supports that involving a child in collaborative problem-solving, including offering choices, increases their internal motivation. In a huge win-win, the more children feel internally motivated, the less structure they need from us.

Some conversation starters for the dinner table:

"Tell me your ideas for rules about using social media."

"What do you know are the risky parts of being on social media?"

"What are the reasons you want to use Instagram?"

"We have a rule that you aren't old enough for Instagram. Do you know why we decided that?"

Breaking the Rules

Now the hard part: how to respond once a child breaks a family rule about social media. I understand the impulse to impose more limits (I've been there), but if we view this as a learning opportunity, several strategies can help address this in a way that promotes growth instead of leading to a power struggle.

  • Get their perspective. Take deep breaths for your own state of mind, and calmly ask your child, "How did you make the decision to start an Instagram account?" The more they share, the better you can address the gap between the family rule and their choice to break the rule.
  • Show empathy. It is easy in this situation to respond with statements that leave the child feeling shame; when a child feels shame, they shut down and do not learn. Instead of "How could you do this? We can't trust you anymore," validate, "It sounds like you were feeling left out and wanted to be like your friends. It's hard to feel different."
  • Connect family values with their behavior. Say something like: "As you are growing up, we want to trust you. Part of that trust is talking to us if you disagree with a rule instead of sneaking around."
  • Invite their ideas. "What do you think should happen next since you broke our rule?" Asking for their thoughts does not mean they decide; you still hold the authority. However, you might be surprised that they come up with a reasonable consequence (like deleting Instagram) and one that will be easier to enforce since they thought of it! (This has actually happened in my family, so I promise it's possible.)

These strategies do not just help teach children about social media, but taking the above steps gives them an opportunity for critical thinking, while also prioritizing communication and family values in the process.

The Bottom Line

You may have noticed I did not answer part of your question: Is 11 old enough to be responsible on social media? The short answer is probably not. (We could probably agree there are many adults who are not responsible on social media, so it's not all about age!) However, this does not mean that 11 is too young to start the process of learning how to use social media. You and your child can work together to develop a plan to do just this on a platform that feels comfortable to both of you, with limits, mentorship, and an eye toward their future of being an adult using social media for good.

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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