Parents, Teens Strengthen Relationships through Social Media

  By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer

  • 26 September 2013

Syd and Brooke Jacques take photos of themselves on their smartphones. Research found that teens feel closer to parents when they connect on social media.  Photo by Mark A. Philbrick, BYU.

Article Highlights

  • Teens who are connected with their parents on social media feel closer to parents in real life.
  • Parent-child social media interaction may lead to higher rates of pro-social behavior.
  • Used appropriately, parent-child social networking allows more opportunities for parents to give positive feedback and show affection.

“A lot of teenagers are on Twitter, and not a lot of parents are on that. If you really want to stay involved with your kid, you can’t be afraid to learn new technology, to learn new websites, and to know where your teen is.” — Sarah Coyne, professor of family life, BYU

PROVO, UTAH

It may seem odd for some parents to interact with their own teen children on social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but new research at Brigham Young University by BYU professors Sarah Coyne and Laura Padilla-Walker shows that parents shouldn’t shy away from their teens. According to the study, parent involvement on social media platforms may pay big dividends.

President Thomas S. Monson has counseled: “Our children today are growing up surrounded by voices urging them to abandon that which is right and to pursue, instead, the pleasures of the world. Unless they have a firm foundation in the gospel of Jesus Christ, a testimony of the truth, and a determination to live righteously, they are susceptible to these influences. It is our responsibility to fortify and protect them” (“Three Goals to Guide You,” Ensign, Nov. 2007, 118).

The study found that teenagers who are connected to their parents on social media feel closer to their parents in real life. “I think it’s important for parents to be media savvy and to know where their kids are,” said Sister Coyne. “A lot of teenagers are on Twitter, and not a lot of parents are on that. If you really want to stay involved with your kid, you can’t be afraid to learn new technology, to learn new websites, and to know where your teen is.”

The study of nearly 500 families also found that teens who interact with their parents on social media have higher rates of pro-social behavior—meaning that they are more generous, kind, and helpful to others. “We also found that overall social networking, independent of parent use, was associated with certain negative outcomes for teenagers,” said Sister Coyne. “They were more relationally aggressive and had higher internalizing behavior. That was a little surprising to me. We tend to think of social networking as relatively harmless, and for the most part it really is. But kids who are using it a ton—we had some kids in the study who were using it more than eight hours a day—some of them show problems in terms of aggression and depression.”

President Monson said: “To an alarming extent, our children today are being educated by the media, including the Internet. … The messages portrayed on television, in movies, and in other media are very often in direct opposition to that which we want our children to embrace and hold dear. It is our responsibility not only to teach them to be sound in spirit and doctrine but also to help them stay that way, regardless of the outside forces they may encounter. This will require much time and effort on our part—and in order to help others, we ourselves need the spiritual and moral courage to withstand the evil we see on every side” (“Three Goals to Guide You,” 118–19).

Social networking sites allow youth to do all kinds of activities, said Sister Coyne. The sites give parents who are engaged an intimate look at a teenager’s life. It gives parents a nice little window into their children’s lives. What kinds of things are they posting? What do their friends comment about and like? It also allows another avenue for parents to interact with their children. “Your kid might post a picture, and you might show support by liking it or making a nice comment, or a status update that does the same kind of thing,” said Sister Coyne. “It gives more opportunities to give positive feedback or show affection.”

Sister Coyne said that the more frequently parents used social media to interact with teens, the stronger the connection they had with them. But the social media interaction can be taken too far. “Parents need to be smart about how they use it,” said Sister Coyne. “I think it is a really great tool to connect with your kids. But just like everything else, it’s got to be used in moderation. You don’t want to be the parent who posts embarrassing pictures of your kid all the time or makes snarky comments. You have to keep it at the level that’s appropriate and respectful of what the teen wants as well.”

For parents who feel they have a great bond with their children, social media interaction can strengthen that bond. Parents who are more connected to their teens in general want to keep that connection elsewhere, said Sister Coyne. As parents and children have experiences in social media, it strengthens bonds that are already there. It’s kind of a rich get richer type of thing and cementing what’s already there. On the other hand, the results of the study shouldn’t get overblown. If you friend your child on Facebook, you’re not suddenly going to have a great relationship. It’s just one tool in an arsenal that parents have to connect with their teens.

President Monson said, “In a Latter-day Saint home, children are not simply tolerated, but welcomed; not commanded, but encouraged; not driven, but guided; not neglected, but loved” (“Timeless Truths for a Changing World,” BYU Women’s Conference, May 4, 2001).