#NoFilter: Parenting Teens on Social Media

Social media is a lot like hardcore drugs.

Stay with me. Here’s the thing. I totally understand if you don’t want to develop a drug habit. There are a lot of downsides. Sometimes there are physical/behavioral problems that develop. You may not like having your day-to-day moods and aspirations driven by cravings. There’s the whole law of diminishing returns on consumption vs. high. Not to mention the tremendous financial burden. I get it. Drugs just aren’t you. Fine.

But guess what: if your kids are using, it’s not cool to ignore that just because it’s not your deal.

It’s one thing to give them their space; it’s another to give them all of the space… It’s not about control and it’s not even all about protection… Parents don’t necessarily need to kick their children off of social media, but they must be willing to walk with them.

I’m gonna show my age here, but Instagram wasn’t always a thing. Any time a new point of digital interaction emerges, a new batch of parents has to face off with their own fears and misgivings about tech and kids and these days. With Insta particularly, I remember having a conversation with one dad in which I realized he had drawn a line in the Inter-sand over which he had no intention of following his teenage daughter any further. He was on Facebook; I think he may even have had a newbie Twitter account with the big-white-egg profile pic. I mentioned something about some life event I’d seen on Insta from his daughter. He shook his head. “You don’t follow her?” I asked.

“I don’t…” he began, but trailed off. “I’m not on it. I don’t even want to know.”

I have never been able to understand that.

I have kids. My boys are 9 and 11. We don’t let them play on our phones. They don’t have phones of their own yet because they don’t have jobs. YouTube is not a third parent in our home. No social media, apart from the Twitter account I set up for them when they were 4 and 6 to keep track of the awesome things they would say (@shatnermysonsay). It’s not because we’re trying to shelter them from “bad things.” I took each of them on consecutive spring break trips to dive into the rabbit hole of all the bad words. All of them. We made a list. A hierarchical chart, actually. Think poop is a junior crap is a junior… and you’re on the right track.

But the Internet, and by extension social media, is different. My kids can’t comprehend yet that there are people that would do them evil just for the sake of doing it. So maybe we’re being a little protective at the outset, but we’re hoping to carry it to the logical conclusion of them being able to one day set their own safe and appropriate boundaries online. To know not to post a picture that could one day cost them a job. To call a bully a bully and know not to participate. Perhaps it’s hokey, but we want them to know that their online personas are an extension of Christian living, not an escape from it.

All that’s to say I cannot imagine intentionally checking out on their digital interaction.

I get it. Youth are complicated and culturally evolve at a remarkable pace. Youth ministry itself changes faster than most pastors or personnel committees could ever imagine. But for parents to adopt a “no point in steering now” attitude just throws in the towel without a fight. As we are able, we’ve got to encourage parents to stay in it.

Here are three quick points to give parents some footing they may feel like they’re losing:

1) It’s your phone.

And in all likelihood, it’s your computer, too. It’s one thing to give them their space; it’s another to give them all of the space. Wanting to trust them is a great instinct, but parenting means building them and guiding them into being trusted people. You don’t teach a kid to drive by tossing them the keys. (Though that’s roughly the process in the state of Georgia for getting a motorcycle permit.) Technology is a rapidly advancing field. New forms of social media appear overnight. It’s your phone. If you brought it into your home, you’re not allowed to check out on it.

2) You are the parent.

This fact gets lost pretty often, somehow. Parents parent. This doesn’t mean a sudden foot-down attitude with no explanation. If you have to take back ground regarding technology that you gave up previously, find a way to do it with grace and keep your kids in the conversation. You haven’t suddenly lost trust in them if you start reading texts or monitoring social media posts. It’s the ages old who-are-you-hanging-out-with standoff, and it’s still an important question. Though the friends-you’ll-never-meet now come with helpful bios.

3) You’re not on your own.

If you feel like you’re up Kik creek without an Omegle, reach out. Ask your school (or church!) to bring in a tech/social media person to explore current trends in social media use and abuse. Talk to other parents. You’ll be surprised how common frustrations transcend what apps are actually in play. There’s also this thing called Google; it knows basically everything.

It’s not about control and it’s not even all about protection. In the case of the dad from the beginning, he was missing out on a chance to help his daughter love herself without social approval of her body type. Parents don’t necessarily need to kick their children off of social media, but they must be willing to walk with them.


AltonKevin Alton is a writer, author, and speaker on all things spiritual and age-level Christian ministry. He’s the co-creator of Youthworker Circuit, a lectionary resource for youth ministry. Kevin also currently serves as content curator for Science for Youth Ministry, a Templeton grant funded effort of Luther Seminary. Kevin lives with his wife and two boys in the Georgia woods just outside of Chattanooga, TN. You can connect with him on most social media as @thekevinalton.

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