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How to Parent Tweens Entering the Digital World

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The tween years are a time when our kids are seeking more independence but the issues they face require our awareness and attention the most. I am asked a variety of questions about all things tween, but the questions I am asked that cause the most exasperation in parents have to do with tweens, phones, and social media. Here are some Q&As for the most common concerns:

            Q: My daughter is 12 and claims to be the only 7th grader without a phone. How do I know if she’s ready for one?

            A: There are many schools where by 7th grade she might actually be the last one to have a phone. Ten years of age is consistently the age when it is common and accepted for a child to have their own phone. The question really comes down to why she wants a phone, and if you are ready for her to have one.

            She wants to join her friends texting one another, posting pictures and commenting on what everyone else is doing. Whether or not your daughter gets a phone, she is likely using the features of a friends’ phones. The decision of whether or not to get her one is yours, but if she does have her own, you can better monitor what she is seeing and using.

            If you are ready to evaluate what goes on her phone, learn how to set privacy levels, be aware of what her friends are doing on their phones, and have ongoing conversations about the pitfalls of tweens and cell phones, then you (and she) might be ready. It’s essentially getting a part-time job.

            Q: How should I monitor my child’s phone and social media use?

            A: Parents can range from wanting very little oversight to being notified of every single keystroke. No matter your parenting style, there are a couple of starting points that I think are great for everyone, and the earlier you start them the better (hard to negotiate these later on!).

First, once they reach the required age to sign up for apps, let them know that you will friend or follow them. Most kids appreciate the caveat that you promise not to ‘like’ their posts or (gasp) comment on them. Second, advise that from time to time you’d like to sit down and look through posts, chats, tweets, etc. to see what’s up in their world. Hear the difference between that and “I will be confiscating your phone to search through it”- present the attitude that you don’t expect to find anything bad, you just love to see what everyone is posting and talking about. And then when you do this, don’t ridicule anyone, just lighthearted conversations about “she seems really funny, what do you like about her?” or “he really loves football doesn’t he!” This is not always met with enthusiasm, but once show them that you really do just sit and look through posts without judgment, they’ll start to just accept this as routine (I can’t promise no eye-rolling, but it shouldn’t be a struggle).

Q: What’s fair in terms of usage guidelines?

A: I follow my daughter on Instagram, as well as many of her friends. During a quick scroll through there it becomes obvious which kids have guidelines to follow and which don’t, as well as who has parents who check what they are posting. Your family values should inform your guidelines – every kid and every family is different. Here are some basic guidelines – feel free to add to them depending on your level of comfort:

-Start with a small number of apps. When my daughter was allowed to start using apps I explained that we won’t be adding them all at once, we’d start with two. I don’t like the anonymous apps like so it was easy enough to eliminate those as options. She got to choose which other ones she wanted, and as she demonstrated responsible use, she was allowed to add more.

-Two words: privacy settings. Look them up for each app you have, Google best practices for these, use them.

-Talk about guidelines for pictures she may post. Ours are short and sweet: if you wouldn’t wear it to school, you may not post a picture of yourself in it. And don’t even try to post a picture looking sexy, it won’t be seeing the light of day (or the internet).

-I didn’t allow my daughter to send pictures of herself to anyone for a while, we got comfortable with texting and viewing posts first. If you are okay with your child sending pictures, and they are asked to send pictures to someone, same guidelines apply as above. Additionally, consider the source – if they are not good friends with the person requesting or aren’t sure it really is them, do not send pictures. Remember, there aren’t a lot of good reasons to just ask someone to send a picture of themselves, so don’t tempt fate.

-Talk about your expectations for what is texted or posted. Again, I use simple guidelines to keep it simple and easy to remember: “Would you post this if I was standing over your shoulder? Is it gossip? Will it hurt anyone’s feelings?” And just a word to the wise, group chats have the highest propensity to end with inappropriate comments and/or bullying. Also talk about consequences for breaking any guidelines you set up. And praise them for positive posts that show responsibility!

My biggest advice with all of this is to avoid thinking that you’ll set rules and guidelines and they’ll be set until they’re off to college. Things change quickly in the world of technology, as well as in the needs and culture of kids. Do your best, adjust as necessary, and evolve with what is new and changing.

Debi Smith-Racanelli has two advanced degrees in Psychology, and is a passionate advocate of parenting education. Her book Between Baby Dolls and Boyfriends addresses all aspects of raising tween girls. Connect with Debi at or on Twitter @debijsr


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  • comment avatar Amber Johnson November 21, 2016

    Fantastic advice! I have a tween entering this world so I need all the help I can get.

  • comment avatar MOnica November 21, 2016

    This is so needed. I’m surprised by how many parents buy their kids phones without reviewing their expectations and rules with them. Our kiddos need to be trusted while also being regulated. THey will make mistakes so we need to help them pick themselves back up and learn from them.

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