16th April 2024

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‘Not letting me on Snapchat was the best thing my mum ever did for me’: how to talk to your kids about social media | Parents and parenting

As a parent, you prepare yourself for various milestones: their first tooth, first step, first word. But here we were, my eldest daughter, Raffaella, and I, and it was her first real push asking for social media. She was 14. She had talked about it before, but more in curiosity – this time she was serious. She wanted it; specifically Snapchat. And she was at the negotiating table with that focused, steely look in her eye that I have always admired.

I started negotiations with a simple question: “Why?” Her reasons were all to do with not wanting to feel left out. Entirely understandable. But, I explained to her, if someone wanted to leave you out they still could, by jumping from one app to another until – what? You were no longer the driver in your own life but following someone else’s agenda. Where would it stop? And what if something were shared among the whole school or taken out of context?

We talked at length and I listened carefully. I said I had heard all her reasons and would download Snapchat to see what it was like before making a final decision.

After using the app for a couple of days, I found it to be one of the worst, most aggressive apps for communication (which is what she said she wanted it for). It traps you in a loop of needing to respond to others, which is anxiety-inducing, and I found even my most cherished friends who were on it (and gave me a “taster” of what it was like) seemed different while using it. So a few days later, my answer was: “Why on earth would I let you have this awful thing?”

Raffaella wasn’t happy, but I could see that she was listening. I said: “This conversation is always open; let’s talk again in a couple of weeks.” But the subject never came up with the same force again. Because of my own adolescence, I know teens who don’t get their way can sometimes do it anyway, so as we ended the conversation, I added a caveat: “If you do go on it and you get into trouble, come and see me, as I can and will help. And I promise to wait one whole week before I say: ‘I told you so.’”

I grew up in a very loving Italian household, and part of me wanted to become a mother specifically to emulate certain excellent experiences I’d had. But there was little negotiation in my family. If my mum and dad said no, it was no. I still remember how stymied I felt and how my voice didn’t seem to matter, which resulted in boiling rage that had nowhere to go but inwards. To have any sort of “normal” adolescence, I simply lied. (Until my dad died, I swore blind that it wasn’t me who was spotted in Leicester Square, at the age of 14, on a night out.)

Italian culture, at least in my experience, is about respecting elders, but it doesn’t always work the other way around when one of you is a child. And as a child I thought this was really unfair. Although my parents were protective, consent wasn’t always sought for certain things. I remember my top being pulled up, without my permission, when I was about 12, to show relatives where a mosquito had bitten me on the breast, and me being rooted to the spot in searing embarrassment.

For these reasons, I decided to treat my children as what they were – people, just smaller – and how I wish I had been treated in certain situations. I also knew that if they learned these things at home – that they mattered, that their consent was important – it would stand them in good stead in the outside world. I wanted to build a relationship with them based on trust. From a really early age, I taught them that everything is negotiable and that we would always listen to their point of view. When you really let a child talk about how they feel and let them present their arguments, and you explain your good reasons for saying no, I have found the conversation doesn’t have to be repeated daily. If you just say something like, “No – because I said so,” they can feel frustrated and unheard.

When Raffaella was about seven, her father said no to her having a particular toy. He went to have a bath and she was disappointed. “Negotiate!” I said. “Don’t give up! Think of something Daddy has said he wanted when he was your age, but couldn’t have; remind him what it’s like to be seven.”

She thought. “Dad,” she ventured through the closed bathroom door, “do you remember when you were seven and Grandad wouldn’t let you have Action Man? Do you remember how it felt?” (This was an oft repeated story in our house.) Silence. Then a tentative “ye-es” from my partner, who played his part beautifully. “Well that’s how I feel now.” She replied. Raffaella got her toy.

I am a natural observer, a writer and a slow thinker. But I am also a communicator and the Guardian’s agony aunt of 15 years. So really, social media had my name all over it. I signed up to Facebook in about 2006, Twitter in 2009 and Instagram about eight years after that. I am not an early adopter, but I am a technophile. Once I get into something, I throw myself into it, and I also think the best way to control technology (insofar as one can) rather than vice versa, is to understand it. I usually take a complete social media break over the summer to recalibrate. I love technology and I love social media. Just not all the time.

When you write for national newspapers, social media isn’t always a ride through Disneyland. You have to watch what you say, but others don’t. You never quite know how a piece, or a comment, will land. The most common problem is people projecting their own issues on to you, and sometimes those issues can be dark. I am a grownup, with a cushion of years of therapy, and a team of lawyers and editors to fall back on, yet I know how corrosive and distracting social media can be. It can also be wonderful: helpful, informative, entertaining – and it’s here to stay. But it’s definitely a deal with the devil unless you read the small print. In other words, adults can find it hard to navigate it safely and happily, so it was never going to be easy for children.

Through my column, I am fortunate to have access to specialists, including child and adolescent psychotherapists, whom I speak to regularly. I vividly remember when one of these experts explained how self-esteem and our sense of self is formed. As we grow up, we need to see ourselves reflected back – hopefully positively – by the people who love us and surround us. They shape us. I immediately got this image of a piece of half-formed clay. Why would I let strange hands sculpt my child? In that moment I knew I would have to think really carefully before letting my children on social media.

“People do not communicate with authenticity and vulnerability on social media,” explains the ACP registered child and adolescent psychotherapist Ryan Lowe. “As a result, young people have really contorted pictures of what the lives of others are like. Lives on social media are always either exaggeratedly wonderful or exaggeratedly awful, traumatic and extreme. This leaves them trying to form an identity in a hall of mirrors with all the reflections of themselves and others being completely distorted. It takes a strong adolescent to be able to filter the noise of social media out and find an authentic way of developing.”

The specialists also taught me how important it was to model the sort of behaviour you want back from your children. In other words: do as I do, not as I say.

Everything in our house is a discussion. (“My advice,” Prof Peter Fonagy, CEO of the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, once told me, “is to reach a reasoned democratic agreement with your child, in discussion with them.”)

I would never ask my children to do anything I wasn’t prepared to do myself (with some exceptions). I would always ask for their consent, where appropriate, from when they were small (eg: “Can I use your colouring pens?”; “Can I get you undressed for a bath?”), and – crucially – I’d listen to them if they said no. And I would never say no for the sake of it just because I was the adult. I would give reasons. But – and this is important – their father and I have always been the adults. Sure, they could negotiate, but someone had to take final responsibility, and that person, where social media was concerned, was me. (Their father, my partner, didn’t want her to have social media either, but wasn’t sure how to navigate these tricky waters.)

Children need boundaries to feel safe; they need you to be the backbone and to say no to things, even if it makes you unpopular. Justice and fairness are tremendously important to children, and they can sniff out hypocrisy in a minute. If what you say doesn’t hold water, they will – and should – challenge you.

My children didn’t have their own devices when they were young, although they had access to my smartphone and iPad to play games such as CityVille, Township (which I became obsessed with), My Talking Angela, Toca Hair Salon. If they ever asked for an app that I didn’t have, just like with Snapchat, I’d download it first and use it for a while before I said yes or no.

In the early days, my concerns about them being on devices – phones, tablets, etc – was more to do with posture and eyesight. I started off with parental restrictions until the safety officer at my daughter’s school said there was little point doing so in a domestic setting as not all computers will have restrictions on them, so it’s best they learn to navigate themselves. Early years browsing was largely with a parent alongside. But we did have one unbreachable rule: no tech upstairs without permission. And even now phones are left downstairs at bedtime. I feel really strongly that children – all of us – need time off and away. To look up, to look out, to daydream. We all need to feel connected, but there’s a fine line between feeling connected to something and feeling shackled.

My children always asked before borrowing my devices, I never said no for the sake of it, and when I asked for them back they never said no for the sake of it either. I never told them to, “Switch that thing off right now,” because who wants to be spoken to like that? But rather, “That looks like a great thing you are watching, but you’ve been on the TV/tablet/phone for quite a while now, so in five minutes switch it off and let’s go do something else.” (Note: they also tell us to put our phones down and, largely, we do – you have to practise what you preach). We never banned devices, because we understood their appeal. They were never used as reward or punishment either. Tech was not fetishised. It was treated like any other thing you had to learn to use responsibly and appropriately, like knives. Or chainsaws.

We regularly talked about the internet and social media. What it was, what its purpose was, how you could justify pretty much any belief on the internet (“always check the source” was an oft-repeated phrase). We talked about it around the dinner table or while driving and answered questions as they came up. They came to understand that once you post something to an open audience, anyone can say anything. And they do. Their father is a photographer and he gave them an early lesson on Photoshop and how images can be changed and smoothed over.

Raffaella got her first phone, like almost all of her classmates, when she went to secondary school. Not a necessity, but we live in the countryside and she travelled 20 miles by public bus, so it made life easier. This of course meant that she now had a great portion of time away from home, being able to look up whatever she wanted and whatever her classmates showed her (the words of the safety officer rang in my ears).

And of course it wasn’t long before her classmates, who largely had social media, started talking about it. And that’s what brought her 14-year-old self to the negotiating table.

Some apps have a lower age limit of 13. It would be nice to think this is a number arrived at by technology companies sitting round a table with concerns for our children’s mental health in mind. It isn’t. As discussed in the science and technology select committee on the impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s health, in 2018, it’s simply the minimum age that allows the collection of children’s personal data without consent and comes from 1998 US legislation. The government is reportedly considering increasing the lower limit of 18; they also tried to control the online environment for young people with the Online Safety Act 2023, which requires social media platforms to shield children from harmful content or face fines of up to 10% of their global revenue.

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“The times they fight hardest for social media,” says Lowe, “are when they are very young and least able to manage it. I definitely wouldn’t allow it in early puberty. But a straight ban might not be the best plan as it doesn’t allow them to learn to be thoughtful about their social media use.” I agree, but then I’d never planned to ban it for ever, just until Raffaella was

older. I also knew saying yes to social media wouldn’t be the end of the problem, but just the beginning. If you say yes, you then have to think about restricting the time they are on it; which individual apps they can go on, etc. I knew this because of the letters I get from anxious parents. They are exhausted by circular conversations, concerned about the time their children spend on social media; worried about them being bullied on it, and their children’s general mental health and self-esteem, which they say is affected by social media use.

The years passed and Raffaella seemed to lose interest in social media. (Her little sister, having observed this all play out, is not remotely interested in social media.) When Raffaella was 17, she gave an interview to a teen magazine about her hobby of bonsai and her love of plants. Being savvy, she had asked to see it before it went to press. The other teens interviewed all had Instagram handles and this seemed to give her pause.

“Why don’t you go on Insta?” I suggested. I felt that if she wanted to try social media it might be best to do so now, while she was still at home and could come to us with any problems. Also she had demonstrated a great maturity and I felt her “foundations” (that clay model) were solid.

I advised her against using herself, purely, as the product, but to have something to say, which she certainly did. So she decided to give it a go. Within three weeks she was making reels about bonsai and plants, and had a huge following (she’s a film-maker now). She would occasionally get weird messages or comments, which we would discuss how to deal with together. As time went on, I could see that some of the things I’d warned her about years ago now made real-time sense.

Doesn’t this all sound incredibly smug and easy? It isn’t. It has taken the hugest amount of discussion to get to this stage – because these discussions aren’t just about social media, but can be about anything and everything. At times it’s taken me to the very edge of my parenting skills where, yes, I want to scream, “Just do it because I said so!” But I’ve always been about the long game.

If you’re reading all of this and thinking, “Crap, I’ve already let my children on social media,” don’t panic. It’s never too late to start the conversation. Try to find out what they’re into. The most important thing is that children know they can come to you if something goes wrong or is troubling them. Ask them how they feel about social media. If they’re coping fine (and you don’t have any worries), then there’s no problem.

“If someone is managing quite well and it’s not damaging to them,” says Lowe, “it would be daft to take it away from them.” But there are signs that a child is not managing – examples include but are not restricted to: thinking things they’ve seen on TikTok are fact; making themselves vulnerable in what they post; inventing an online persona to make themselves more confident; showing addictive behaviours; it has affected their daily behaviours. “If you think it’s causing them harm, then I would look at taking it away,” says Lowe, who did this for a time with one of her own children. Every family is different: it’s the conversations that are important, not the censorship.

Illustration: Damien Vreznik/The Guardian

I’m really thankful to my mum for not letting me have these apps – it was one of the best things she did for me’
Raffaella Warren-Barbieri, 20

I grew up never letting my friends post pictures of me online, and I didn’t have social media until I turned 17. I had a smartphone from the age of 11, and would text and call my friends a lot. The key difference was that I was a digital spectator, not a participant. I was 12 years old when my friends begged me to get Snapchat and Instagram. And when they asked why I didn’t have social media or an online presence, my answer would change as the years passed.

At primary school, I would say my mum was a spy and I had to keep my identity hidden. At 13, I’d say – in a very annoyed tone – that I wasn’t allowed it. By the time I was 16, I told friends I felt too old for apps like Snapchat and didn’t want to be online. But by that point I was no longer annoyed. I owned the decision. Seeing my friends and classmates on social media, and the effect it had on them, I had come to realise I wasn’t missing out.

I didn’t always feel this way. Not being on social media as a teen did, unsurprisingly, make me feel isolated. Conversations between my friends would not always take place on text, but via social media. New gossip would circulate in the evenings, but I would only find out the next morning, by which point it was old news. Plus, there were certain trending references I just didn’t understand. At the age of 14, I tried really hard to persuade my mum to let me be online. I told her it was more damaging to me to not be on social media, but her response was that she could see things I couldn’t.

I thought she was exaggerating; I felt she didn’t understand me. At that age, my mum couldn’t really make me understand the dangers of social media, just as she couldn’t completely understand what it was like to be a teen growing up in a digital generation. So I looked for different ways to use technology, away from social media.

One way was through making music videos and little films, which I still do to this day, just a bit more professionally. My best friend, who didn’t have social media either, and I would make videos of ourselves set to Teenage Dirtbag or the music of Taylor Swift. We would rewatch them, thinking what a great job we had done. I look at them now, relieved they were never posted online. But I do see these videos for what they were: two 14-year-olds dancing in their room and having a lot of fun. The unalloyed joy of those videos was not ruined by having people comment on them. We had a digital childhood, but it was not for all to see.

People ask me if I ever secretly downloaded social media during my teen years, but I didn’t. This was due to a combination of factors. I saw what social media was like through my friends; I would hear about situations they had found themselves in. When I was 14, there was a site called Omegle, which would randomly video call others on the site – anyone from around the world. I’d overhear my classmates talk about how anonymous, typically much older, men would talk to them and say, or do, completely inappropriate things.

But the main thing that stopped me downloading social media behind my parents’ backs was that the conversation was always left open. My parents never shut me down when I asked for it: they would ask why I wanted it and then explain the positives and negatives of what it would be like to be online at the age I was. They would explain that the positives of social media could often be negatives too. My mum had lots of different apps, and because she had an online presence her concerns about social media came from a place of knowledge and experience, and she would tell me and my sister recent news and scientific findings about social media on the growing brain. So the subject never caused any serious fallouts because I didn’t feel as if they weren’t listening to me. We had a strong relationship, built on trust.

A few months after I turned 17, I was asked to write about my hobby for a magazine, and they asked if I had an Instagram handle. By now I had no desire to download social media, and I went to my mum and asked what I should do. She was the one who, after many years telling me not to have social media, suggested I might now want to set up an account to talk about my hobby. She even suggested my handle.

I am now 20 years old and I have an established digital profile as a content creator. I have had social media for three years, and seeing what the world is like online, I realise I wouldn’t have been able to cope at a younger age. Even now, there are challenges: the constant stimulation from the online world is difficult to switch off, I am frequently unhappy with how I procrastinate through mindless scrolling, and I do sometimes get uncomfortable comments on my posts. What would have happened if those teenage music videos had been posted online? I wonder how my identity might have changed if I’d let others mould it for me. My friends and I talk about how young teens are missing out on their “awkward” stages, which are pivotal to carving out your own, separate, identity. I am so glad I entered social media as a fully formed person rather than being formed by it. I would not be the person I am today if I’d had social media during my adolescent years.

I’m really thankful to my mum for not letting me have accounts on these apps – it was one of the best things she did for me. I don’t know what the future of social media will look like, but one day I aim to approach the topic in the same way with my children.

The latest series of Annalisa Barbieri’s podcast is available here.