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9 ways to help teens manage their social media footprint

For many of today's teens, their online world is simply an extension of their real life.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

For many of today’s teens, their online world is simply an extension of their real life. They send Snaps to check in with friends, post photos on Instagram to document fun happenings, make plans on the fly, all while binge-watching Netflix on their phone.

But what are they really doing online? And, how does their sometimes sleep-deprived and cranky teen selves show up online?

As parents, there are plenty of ways we can encourage them to make better decisions online, not to mention, IRL (in real life).

1. Don't know what Snapchat is? Download it.

According to Common Sense Media, 30 percent of online teens believe their parents know “a little” or “nothing” about the social media apps and sites they use. And this perception (often based in reality) is a real problem — because teens who don’t think their parents have a clue are less likely to seek them out in times of need.

2. Model the behavior you want to see.

If you spend all of your free time (and dinnertime) on your phone or tablet, chances are your kids will too. Even though teens sometimes hate to admit how much they care what their parents think, research shows parents have the biggest influence on what kids think is appropriate. They’re watching you, even when you hope they aren’t!

So, if you are posting pics to Insta or messaging people at the dinner table, you are sending subtle messages…even if you don’t intend to. Not sure how much time you are spending online? Use the Moment app to track your usage.

3. Use current events to your advantage.

The news is certainly filled with near daily stories of someone doing something questionable online – use current events as small teachable moments. Ask your kids what they think about current events, along with the not-so-great behavior of celebrities and well-known figures online and IRL.

Remember: Ask open-ended questions without expectation (tone matters!) and approach is key: teens and tweens can often answer the questions themselves, but need adults to listen.

4. Talk to your teens.

Ask teens to come up with their top 5 IRL values and ask them how it matches up with their online behavior. Many teens (and adults!) don’t fully realize how their online and IRL are more intertwined than they might think. Teens are rarely asked to identify their values, and it can be a great way to start the conversation around making better choices online and IRL — does your daily behavior match your own personal values?

5. Teach kids the three "Ws."

Encourage kids to spot check and ask themselves the three "Ws" before posting.

Who is your audience (and would you be okay if grandma saw this, too)? What is the message you are trying to send with this post, and is it in line with your core values? Why are you posting (bored/angry/sad/happy/other)? And bonus question: If this message/image/posting was publicly attributed to you, how would you feel?

6. Monitor moods.

Moods fluctuate. Teens and tweens often take their emotions to social media. Help them build awareness and find healthy coping strategies to self-regulate and de-escalate before posting.

Emotional anger, combined with teen impulsivity and an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex that doesn’t always think about long-term consequences, can be a recipe for disaster. One of the best things parents can do to help teens and tweens make better choices is to plant a seed of reflection— over time, it can make a big difference.

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7. Safety first.

Some parents believe accessing their kid's phone would violate trust. I encourage parents to reframe that notion to understand that promoting safety — physical, social, and emotional — should be paramount. So, in addition to collaborating with your kids to come up with acceptable use guidelines around technology, parents of middle schoolers should have full access to online passwords and approve any apps before downloads. Even parents of high school students should have access somehow, even if it means passwords are in a sealed envelope only to be used in case of emergency.

Some parents find using a monitoring app can help create teachable moments. If you decide to monitor using an app, be upfront about it. Otherwise, you risk breaching trust at a critical time in your relationship with your teen.

8. Have a back-up plan.

Help your children identify three resources (aside from you) in the event something doesn't go as planned online. Even with the best of intentions, things may happen online that you can’t fully prevent —and kids need to know that you will support them and help them whenever they need you. At the same time, it is important to help them identify some people or places they can turn to if they become overwhelmed because of something that happened or was said online. Sometimes they might feel more comfortable getting advice from someone else. Just make sure they have someone — mentors, counselors, coaches, family friends, relatives — who they identify in advance as being a good resource, because in the moment, they might panic.

A great resource? The Crisis Text Line. Texting HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the USA, anytime, about any type of crisis, gets a live, trained crisis counselor to respond quickly.

9. Use your village.

Parenting in the digital age is tough — and you can’t be everywhere at once. Build community with fellow parents with the adage, “If you see something, say something,” and remove the judgment and shame when others’ children do something less than ideal online. Because in the end, we all need to work together to help our next generation manage their social media footprint.

Ana Homayoun is an author, speaker, and educator. Her forthcoming book, Social Media Wellness: Helping Teens and Tweens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World, focuses on how to promote organization and time-management in an always-on world. Learn more at and follow her online at