Social media, safety and sexts: boundaries and breaking points for teenagers

Advising young people about their online lives is tricky – but there are ways to help them cope

Parents are well aware that for today’s young people, social media is an integral part of life. Parents accept this as part of their child’s life, and the decision about what age to allow their child access social media differs between parents.

Helping young people to manage their use of social media so that they are safe and happy can be a tricky path for parents to navigate. That is due to the fact that young people don’t want to be chaperoned online, especially as they get older and feel the need for increased independence. And while parents don’t want to be policing their activity, they want to help keep them safe.

We need to find a balance between letting young people fend for themselves online, and helping them by providing boundaries. Social media gives young people the potential to connect with and be influenced by a wide network of people. Not all of these people care for them or will treat them well, so young people need to be prepared.

Here are some common worries parents express about their children’s social media use, and some strategies for managing them.


Confidence and exclusion

To be excluded can be a painful experience for young people online. It can have a negative impact on self-confidence and can cause them to develop negative beliefs about themselves. Parents can help young people to cope with the experience by opening up a conversation when they are downloading the app for the first time.

It’s an opportunity for parents to ask them what they are looking forward to about the app, and what they think might be difficult about having it.

Parents can explain that sometimes on apps such as Snapchat, it is hard to see other people’s photos of playdates or parties if they were not invited, and can ask their son or daughter to think how they might feel if that happened.

The young person will at least have had the chance to talk through and prepare for the possibility of being excluded. This thinking ahead can help them build resilience.

Sexualised content

At some point, most adolescents will be asked to send a sexual image of themselves to another person. Childline recently reported that it was receiving more calls from young people concerned about issues related to pressure to send “sexts”, and that children as young as 12 are taking intimate photos of themselves and sending them to others online.

Young people may be motivated to send a sext for a multitude of reasons. It could be that they want to impress someone, or want to flirt, or it could be that they feel pressure to do so. Whatever the reason for pressing Send, it is important that young people are made aware of the fact that once they send an image of themselves, where that image ends up is outside their control.

Even messages and images sent with an expectation that they will exist only for seconds are at risk, as screenshots can capture the image and it can be distributed far and wide, against the sender’s wishes.

At the point of downloading an app where images can be sent, parents can talk about dealing with peer pressure to send images, and about the issue of privacy. If the child is at the beginning of adolescence or even younger, it is important to use language that is age appropriate.

Questions such as “What would you do if someone asked you to send a picture of yourself that you weren’t comfortable with?” or “Do you know that sometimes people send pictures to other people and they think that it will be kept private?”

This can lead to a discussion about how nothing sent via social media sites is ever totally private.

Accessing explicit content

It is important that young people are protected from accessing material online that is not appropriate or safe for them to have. One way parents can help their children to stay safe is to tune in to the potential danger that exists for young people, if they receive explicit sexual content from peers.

Sexual content in the form of sexts, depending on the age of the young person in the image or video clip, can be defined as child pornography. Adolescents can ask someone to send them an intimate picture or sext, not realising it constitutes child pornography, and they are often totally unaware of the potential serious consequences of possessing this.

Young people can act impulsively online when they experience sexual feelings and they can see their request for a sext as harmless fun. Serious consequences could follow, which could impact on the young person in ways they did not consider. Parents can usefully bring up the conversation about protecting themselves from unforeseen consequences if they receive images from a peer. In so doing, the risk of disaster can largely be averted.

Phone addiction

It is possible for young people to become dependent on their phone. However, being able to disconnect from social media is very important as it aids concentration and provides young people with space to connect with their real self. It is important that boundaries are put in place around phone and social media use. Ideally, t

hese boundaries can be spoken about at the outset and then reviewed through the year as the child’s timetable and activities vary.

Evenings and nights are good times to take a break from social media, and taking this break can be something young people find hard to do. It’s okay for parents to be firm about not using phones and apps in the evening and at night.

Parents can lead by example by taking breaks themselves from social media. It is in everyone’s best interests to have space without technology. And if this habit hasn’t been established, it is a healthy one to start now.

Anne McCormack is a family therapist accredited to FTAI and ICP.