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How to handle kids' social media fears as back-to-school starts

What to do when online drama affects your kids IRL.
/ Source: Parent Toolkit

Students no longer get the same kind of fresh start with the beginning of a new school year. Heading back to school, after a summer of social media and smartphones can generate both excitement anxiety. Parents can help ease those anxieties and support the excitement through open, trust-building conversations with their children. Our team at The Social Institute calls those conversations “huddles.”

When you “huddle” with your child about social media, you build trust. Huddles are short conversations where you check in with each other about different social media scenarios, trends, and advice. They are a time for you to put away judgement and listen with empathy.

In 2017, a Penn State study found that kids want parents’ help with their experiences online, but they fear parental freak-outs. I work with thousands of students across the country, and when I ask them how they wish parents would respond to their social media experiences, one student shared, “I wish they didn’t just assume it is all bad, just because they don’t understand it.”

Here are four huddles to have with your child about common back-to-school situations involving social media:

Huddle #1: Feeling excluded

Students may have seen their classmates posting photos from summer hangouts that they weren’t invited to, or were not allowed to go to. The fear of missing out, or the anxiety of not being included is even stronger today because students see everything they are missing out on.

Consider huddling with your child throughout the first few weeks of school and asking, “Did you see anything happening on social media that you wish you were invited to, or wish you could have gone to?”

Remind your child that many students haven’t seen each other all summer and that there is a lot of excitement around the beginning of the year. If they weren’t invited to a certain event, it does not mean they are no longer friends with people who were there.

Huddle #2: Facing online drama in real life

If your child was dealing with online drama or bullying over the summer, they may be nervous to see those classmates in person. From passive-aggressive subtweets to hurtful comments on Instagram, students may not get the same reprieve that summer used to provide.

Validate these fears and nerves. Huddle up and ask, “I know it can be nerve-racking going back to school. If you want to talk about anything, I’m here.”

Reassure your child that they can always talk to you if someone bullies them or if someone is stirring up drama online — and you will keep your cool.

Huddle #3: Reconnecting in real life

Students may have been in touch with each other all summer online, especially playing games like Fortnite, but now they can strengthen those friendships in person.

Try reinforcing these real-life connections with a huddle: “Do you want to have your friends over for dinner? Or perhaps suggest an activity you and your friends could do together? Your choice.”

Encourage your child to make real-life plans with friends after school, whether it is gaming together or trying a new activity. Anything that requires them to spend time together talking, solving problems, and strengthening the relationships that were more digitally focused over the summer break will help them reconnect in real life.

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Huddle #4: Posting about fun new experiences

Students often are told what notto post on social media, but what if you flipped the script and taught them what to share instead? Rather than focusing only on the don’ts — “Don’t share this” and “Don’t do that” — let’s focus on what our kids should do.

Huddle by asking: “Does being back in school give you more chances to share cool posts? What moments from school are important to share on social?”

Encourage your child to play to their core — to share what reflects their values, goals, and interests — because what they share reflects their character. And the school year can often provide the most opportunities for posts like these! Whether your child likes performing yoyo tricks, playing sports, or coding, coach them to share what they love most — not what will get the most likes and comments.

Sean Kelly is a social media coach with The Social Institute. Follow Sean on Twitter @seanmkelly42 and on Instagram @seankellytsi.

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