Horror stories about teens and social media often include some serious consequences, like missed job opportunities or college rejections. But if students learn to use social media responsibly and in a safe way, it can have some big benefits by helping them connect, share, and learn. So how do you teach your teens to be good digital citizens without lecturing them?
We asked 25 experts for tips to teach kids how to stay safe, positive, and responsible online.
1. You’re in control of your feed. Recognize what’s unhealthy and hit that unfollow button
Lisa Honold, Director of the Center for Online Safety
Remember, you’re in charge of your content. You can use social media to uplift your life, connect with friends, create content, and entertain. Or you can get used by it when it sucks you in, and then you feel bad afterward. It’s healthy to manage your feed and unfollow/delete accounts that are consistently false news, negative, mean, rude, or bullying. If you notice you feel anxious or irritated after spending time on a certain app or account, that’s your body’s signal that you should spend less time there. It’s not healthy.
After all, the app’s goal is to hook you and make you want to spend more time there. They do that by suggesting the next video or account to follow, through pop up notifications and sounds, through bright colors and buttons. And it’s not just you, teens, who are struggling. Adults have a hard time too. Ideally, you could have an open conversation with your parents about your family using social media more mindfully.
2. Find a purpose to your screen time so that it doesn’t become a pastime
Josh Ochs, Founder of SmartSocial.com
Brainstorm 2-3 things you want to be known for when people look you up online. This exercise will help you find your screen time purpose so that social media doesn’t become a pastime. Once you know what you want to be known for, it’s easier to decide whether your Instagram post or YouTube comment is going to help you achieve your goals (or hurt your digital footprint).
The majority of your social media posts should be about the 2-3 things you want to be known for. It’s okay to be silly on social media as long as you keep your posts are positive and full of gratitude.
3. Highlight your best self and turn all social media platforms into a living/breathing portfolio
Chad Dorman, Founder, Leonard Andrew Consulting
Social media is a living resume that showcases your character. The things that make you authentically YOU? Awards you’ve won? The things you are passionate about? You definitely want to make sure that these are the content pieces that you’re presenting on the Internet for all to see.
You’re already geared towards documenting just about every moment of your life on social, so don’t miss out on an opportunity to share your latest A+ paper or your creation from art class. Showcasing you who are, as well as your activities and interests, is something that colleges are looking for. Make sure to impress them! They want more than just transcripts and an academic ace – they want someone who shows passion, who is authentic, and who will contribute positively to their campus. Post positively, publish proudly!
4. With great power, comes great responsibility
Meredith Essalat, Principal, Author of The Overly Honest Teacher
If students are old enough to have their own social media account, then they are old enough to understand the risks and responsibilities that come with this. I always discuss the perils and risks of social media and other online forums directly with my students. When they chose to make a TikTok at recess and film it in their school uniforms, we talked about voyeurism and the danger that comes from letting their location be known. When they goaded a group of neighboring students into fighting on campus by posting mean comments on an Instagram post, we talked about the impact of language and the ramifications that result in inciting violence.
I teach my students about the vacancy of online anonymity and being certain that the persona they are putting out on social media jives with who they are and how they want the world to know them.
5. Social media abstinence isn’t the way, planning is key
Jennifer Walden, Director of Operations, Wikilawn
As the mom of a tween, I’ve really had to strategize on the best ways to keep her safe. Just telling her she can’t use social media isn’t a solution, as much as I wish it was. It’s the primary means of communication and social validation for her age group, and when all of her friends are using it but she isn’t, that becomes an even bigger issue.
That said, I do worry not just about predators and the usual dangers, but about her posting things she shouldn’t, and the potential for her to be bullied relentlessly. She and I have discussed several instances of cyberbullying, making a plan for what to do if it ever happens to her. She knows to disengage and come talk to me or her dad. The worst thing she can do is shut herself away and let everything they’re saying just exist in an echo chamber.
6. Never post criminal activities
David Reischer, Attorney & CEO of LegalAdvice.com
The most important tip for tweens and teens when using social media is not to post anything that is evidence of unlawful activity. Tweens and teens may not have an appreciation that posting some types of content can be unlawful. Posts that are defamatory, incite violence, or include hate speech are just some examples of posts that can land a young person in trouble.
Posting criminal activities or conspiring with other social media members to riot, protest or loot can also be used as evidence against a tween or teen. A young person that is passionate about social justice or other political cause is permitted to post on social media under the First Amendment Right to Free Speech but there needs to be a consideration when a posting might cross over into a criminal act. Be careful out there on the Internet. Posting unlawful messages or evidence of unlawful conduct can land a tween or teen in hot water.
7. Research apps before you trust them
Ben Taylor, Founder of Home Working Club
My number one tip for parents is to research things before you trust them. The ultimate research tool is right there in your hands in the form of a web browser. That means you can check if a news report is factually correct before you share it, find out if a new app is actually out to scam you, and determine whether that fun new photo game is actually harvesting your personal details. It only takes seconds to check these things out, so don’t just use social media blindly. It doesn’t take much extra time and effort to stay much safer online.
8. Be aware of the content you’re consuming, and what that content seems to want from you
Melanie Squire, Founder of and Therapist with Freedom Counseling
Social media can certainly offers numerous benefits, but as a therapist, I have more and more parents expressing concern that digital technology is affecting the emotion and social lives of their children. Most youth and young adults are quick to defend their socially networked lives, claiming that social media helps them feel more connected to their friends and provides critical support during difficult times. These benefits are why it’s so important to educate new social media users about healthy habits.
Use social media to supplement real world interests:
Do you like Hiking? Follow pages that educate you about the activity, and share information about hikes near you. Is makeup your thing? Find how-tos that you can emulate, and use in your everyday life. Social media is about building communities of interest, but being a part of a community that encourages action of its members is better than one offering passive interactions. Ask yourself, why do you like a page, or social community? Do the communities you’re a part of make you want to learn more or participate offline? Can you have non-digital conversations about these topics? Certainly some forms of social content are for entertainment or important to staying informed. Not every interaction needs to be pushing you to take some real world action. However, it is important to be aware of the content you’re consuming, and what that content seems to want from you.
9. Focus on what you really enjoy to avoid overuse
Jakub Kliszczak, Marketing Specialist at CrazyCall
Oftentimes, people have all of the available apps on their phones. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, Snapchat, and more. This leads to a constant stream of social media binging – you start with one app to switch to another to switch to another and the cycle continues. Ask yourself what type of content do you really enjoy. Do you care about what your friends post on Facebook? Or do you prefer visual content on Instagram? Maybe you enjoy the more professional content from LinkedIn.
Answer that question and limit your usage to just one or two social media platforms. Surely, you won’t stop using social media but you’ll limit the time you spend on your phone.
10. Think twice before posting on social media
Chane Steiner, CEO of Crediful
Start with a conversation and remind your students that whatever they put out there will never go away. Even if they delete it. Even if they unshare it or ask for it to be taken down. The internet moves so quickly that by the time you realize you don’t want it out there, it’s already too late. So think twice before posting something. Are you comfortable living with that choice forever?
Urge your kids to think about what the person seeing it will feel or think. Will their post start a fight? Are they hurting someone? Are they negatively impacting someone’s life? Have your students think about what it would feel like if someone did that to them. If it would make them feel bad, it’s probably not okay.
Finally, it’s important for tweens and teens to understand that they are not as anonymous as they think. The internet leaves a trail everywhere for everyone. If that makes them uncomfortable, they probably shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing.
11. Social media can showcase a student’s aptitude
Natalie Bidnick Andreas, Digital Strategy Consultant, @NatalieBid
Don’t avoid having a social media footprint. Parents may “outlaw” certain platforms due to their potential to cause harm, but my research shows that not existing at all online can actually be more detrimental to a student’s future college applications and job prospects. Instead, parents should counsel their children to see social media as a public tool – their “calling card” into the world.
Platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram can showcase a student’s aptitude in sports, creative projects, travel, academic pursuits, and overall communication skills. Students can certainly still post pictures of the homecoming dance and the football game, but space should also be dedicated to their passions. It’s not about being fake – it’s more about showcasing a student’s favorite aspects of life.
If parents are apprehensive about their child’s participation in social media, I recommend working through the “front yard test” as a family. Everything posted on social media should pass the “front yard test”; that is, it should be appropriate enough to put on a large sign in the front yard or other public community space. Parents can ask their children: “How would you feel if all your future teachers and bosses saw this post on our front lawn?” If the child would feel ashamed, it’s not fit to post.
The “front yard test” exercise gets students thinking ahead to college and beyond. After all, no matter how “anonymous” they may try to be online, future schools and employers will be able to access their digital footprint. It’s up to each child and their family to plan ahead and to post accordingly.
12. Follow your children on social media
Betsy Furler, Author and Speaker, @BetsyFurler
Responsible use of social media is critical for students today. Students need to be aware that what they post on social media may be available online forever. If they don’t want their grandparents, teachers, or future employers to see something, it shouldn’t be online.
The easiest method of staying safe and responsible online is for parents to follow their children online. This ensures oversight in case there is an issue, as well as a “check and balance” of content.
13. Go through the terms of service with your children
Amy Vernon, Adjunct Professor at New York University, @AmyVernon
Parents can teach their children digital safety by going through a site’s terms of service, line-by-line, and explaining it to them. Consider reading it verbatim and then explain what each clause means. At the end, explain that if they accepted the terms, they need to abide by these rules, or their accounts could be deleted.
It makes an impression and encourages students to ask a lot of questions. Students will be much more thoughtful about how they use social media and how they behave online.
14. Logging time spent on social media can be eye opening
Dr. Tim Elmore, Growing Leaders, @TimElmore
Ask to meet and talk about the influence and the hours consumed by social media. Often, logging in the hours a teen spends online can be eye-opening for them. Many spend the equivalent of a full-time job staring at a screen.
You can also do the following:
- Ask to scroll through their posts with them.
- This could be awkward, but actually sit with them and look at the posts uploaded both by them and to them. Discuss what you see together.
- Interpret the tone and content of the posts and what it suggests about their character.
- This may feel cheesy or cliché, but ask what someone looking at their posts might conclude if they didn’t know them.
- Discuss how employers, coaches, instructors or mentors might view their sites.
- Next, talk about how students (grads) have lost their chance at a job because an employer viewed their social media posts.
- Ask them if they have ever noticed an attitude change in themselves after reading or posting on social media.
- This requires transparency, but discuss how you, or they, can experience a negative attitude or impulsive reactions online.
- Suggest they follow this rule: I will only post what I want my reputation to be ten years from now.
- Finally, give them the long view: What impact does this post have or what reputation will this post give me a decade from now?
15. Start a discussion early on
- Never take over another person’s thread to drive home a point.
- Don’t go ad hominem when you disagree with someone; always remain respectful and calm.
- Thank and tag people when you share something they shared first.
- If you don’t have something nice to say, it’s best not to say it.
- Vet friend requests carefully – if you can’t see enough information to make an informed decision, it’s best to decline the request and mark it as spam.
- Don’t share anything you wouldn’t want your mom to see and don’t overshare.
16. Teach accountability
Tom Kersting, Valley Family Counseling, @TomKersting
It starts with parents. Parents must first ask the following question: Is my child ready for a smartphone and social media? Don’t worry if the other kids your children’s age have access to smartphones and social media. Instead focus on your intuition.
Inform your child that there will be consequences right away if there are any social media mishaps. This means taking access away and following through with the rules that were agreed upon. Accountability is the key; it’s how kids learn.
Students must be educated by the school with regards to digital citizenship and there must be consequences if rules are violated. This sends a strong message that social media must be used responsibly.
17. Encourage students to use technology meaningfully
Troy Dvorak, Psychology Professor, @RockinPsychProf
I encourage my college students to text, tweet, and post information they learn during class when we take periodic class breaks. Teachers can create blogs and Facebook pages for their classes and offer credit to students who participate meaningfully. I also encourage students to follow people and organizations relevant to their major. The use of technology in classrooms is ubiquitous now so, rather than police it, teachers should have students make great use of it. If you keep them busy using technology for learning, they don’t have time to use it for other things during class.
18. Remind teens that nothing is private online
Dave Delaney, Futureforth, @DaveDelaney
First and foremost, never put anything online you don’t want your educators, future employers, peers, and parents to see. Deleted items can still live on servers. People can take screenshots of posts. Private accounts can be hacked. Nothing is 100% private online.
Students should actively grow and nurture their network on social media. Take time to get to know people and find ways to serve them.
19. Guide students on how to use social media effectively
Kristen Moon, Moon Prep
The college admissions process is competitive enough; students need be cautious to not sabotage themselves. Students need to assume that any picture, post, or tweet that is posted will be seen by the admissions officer at their dream college. Teach students to only put material out there that can benefit them. Students should create a LinkedIn page that is interactive and shows pictures and videos of their accomplishments, interests, and passions. Include the LinkedIn profile URL with the college application. This is a great way for students to make their resume come to life and show how they are using social media responsively and productively.
20. Students shouldn’t count on anonymity
Patrick Fogarty, Valley Stream 30, @Fogarty22
As simple as it sounds, if students wouldn’t say it in person, they shouldn’t type it. Students can’t count on a veil of anonymity on Twitter or any other social network. If someone wants to find out who you are, they will. Encourage students (and everyone else) to schedule their tweets using an app like HootSuite or Buffer, so they can type out whatever they want to say, then schedule it to send in an hour or two. That way, students have plenty of time to reconsider their posts before they go public.
21. Advise students to THINK about what they are going to post
Matthew Nance, Kiwanis International
T – is it Truthful
H – does it Help?
I – does it Inspire?
N – is it Nice or Necessary?
K – is it Kind?
Is their post truthful? Does their post/tweet reflect the true nature of the situation? Is their post only telling one side of the story? Does the post misrepresent the situation or leave out details that matter?
Is the post helpful? Does their post/tweet help someone else understand something? Is the post helping their audience understand how they feel? Is the post helping someone get information?
Is the post inspiring? Does the post/tweet encourage and lift up others? Does the post inspire someone to take action? Does the post inspire the reader to be their best self?
Is the post nice or necessary? Does the post/tweet respect others? Is the post an opinion otherwise not being expressed? Does the post put others down? Does the post support others? Does the post serve those who are reading it?
A single tweet or post may not meet all of these criterion. For example, a student might be tweeting in support of their favorite team or wishing someone happy birthday. These tweets may not qualify as a perfect “THINK” post, but they do not violate any of the above questions. Therefore, no harm, no foul.
22. Understand the pros and cons of social media
MoniQue Hoffman, QtheBrand, @QtheBrand
Students have more control over their future than they think when it comes to using social media. It’s important to understand how social media could make or break future educational or professional opportunities. Each student should complete a series of exercises that allow them to define who they are, who they are not, and what their biggest fear is when it comes to being misunderstood or misinterpreted. Analyzing past posts against their answers should put things into perspective for the student. Over time, the pros and cons to being socially responsible on social media become very clear.
23. Become a source of useful information
Ilena Di Toro, Just Movie Posters, @JMPosters
When using social media, be a source that gives useful information to others, not a drain that wastes other’s time. Students can either post an infinite number of selfies, gossip messages, or, worse, hate messages, which drains the viewer. Conversely, they can post pictures of achievements (sports or hobbies) or articles from websites, broadcast, or print media, which are useful sources of information for the viewer. Providing helpful information online benefits the reader and it also boosts your reputation as somewhat of an “expert”.
24. Manage what is posted online
Dan Konzen, University of Phoenix, @DanKonzen
Practicing responsible social media is very simple. Students can easily build a strong, professional online brand by managing what is posted about them online:
- Perform a search on yourself to see what your online brand looks like. Start by googling your name and where you’re from.
- Go back and clean up what you can, making sure to remove any inappropriate posts and pictures from you or about you.
- Keep head shots as professional as possible, especially on sites like LinkedIn, which can be easily found by future employers.
- Create an alert to see what is posted about you online and on social media in the future.
Ultimately, students should think about what is posted online as a digital face tattoo; even if it is removed, it still leaves a scar.
25. Urge students to question their content before they post
Johnna Ithier, SpeakLIFE
Urge students to ask themselves the following questions before they post anything online:
- Is the post TRUE or a rumor?
- Is the post HELPFUL or harmful?
- Is the post INFORMATIONAL or gossip?
- Is the post NEEDED or irrelevant?
- Is the post KIND or harsh?
If the post is not any of these things, or you have to question it, you probably shouldn’t post it. Once you hit send, post, etc… the message is no longer yours and the receiver can do anything they want with the message.
A lot of responsibility comes with using the internet. Parents and educators should take a proactive approach and help kids find positive ways to use social media before they get their first digital device or social media account. Establishing digital boundaries and open communication from the start could help prevent them from posting something that could cost them a dream opportunity in the future.
Before giving your student access to social media, parents can:
- Download each app and review the Terms of Service
- Start a discussion early on and consider using a Social Media Agreement
- Inform students that there will be consequences right away if there are any social media mishaps
- Remind teens that nothing is private online
- Urge students to question each piece of content before they post it
Once your students are active on social media, parents can:
- Follow them on all of their social networks
- Encourage students to post content that showcases their aptitude
- Consider setting time limits
- Become a trusted resource for students when they have questions or feel uncomfortable about content they see on social media
- Stay involved and ask students what they are doing and who they are chatting with