Social media may very well be the most prominent feature of our modern digital landscape. In less than two decades, it has revolutionized the ways we communicate, make new connections, share our lives, and see ourselves. From what we watch to how we shop, to whom we look to for inspiration or trusted advice, social media has had a huge impact on every aspect of society, culture, and commerce. And, of course, it has deeply impacted parenting. 

When I wrote my graduate thesis on Twitter, the platform was still in its infancy, and most businesses had yet to realize the immense power social media and digital PR held for driving growth. (Which is precisely why I would go on to found Zen Media and become one of the world's first digital agencies helping b2b companies build their brands..)  

Between the central role social media continues to play in my professional life and becoming a new mom, my interest in it is stronger than ever. For this reason, I decided to sit down and explore some of my deepest personal questions with Nikki P. Woods, a pioneering psychotherapist and founder of the highly regarded Navesink Wellness Center. Nikki has spent the past 20 years studying and embracing the intricacies of the female mind, empowering mothers to better support their daughter's development, and understanding the impact of social media on children. 

Q: Social media is part and parcel of the digital age in which we're living. What do you see as our collective fascination with this incredibly powerful medium? 

A: Social media provides us all with the opportunity to stay connected --  to have an up-close and intimate look into the lives of our friends and family and to experientially share in their triumphs and tribulations.

But our fascination and obsession with social media lies in something much deeper. The reality is that social media provides a platform for us to present ourselves as we want to be seen.  

Q: It's been said that all behavior, at its core, is an attempt to meet an important need. What particular needs does social media fulfill for tweens and teens? 

Social media plays into the need all of us have for acceptance, validation, and admiration, and this goes double for children. Young girls, especially, seek external validation to help establish a deeper sense of identity, esteem, and confidence. Pre-teens and adolescents derive much of their sense of worth from peer acceptance and peer approval. So social media gives kids of these ages a sense of being able to instantly track and gauge their social standing, which, of course, significantly impacts their feelings about themselves. 

Q: Social media use among children is a hotly debated topic. Why do you recommend letting kids use social media? 

A: I understand and empathize with the concerns about children's social media use. The reality, however, is that in a digital age, shielding kids from social media entirely is to delay the inevitable. More to the point, it's to miss out on amazing opportunities for building trust with our kids while helping them to better understand themselves and navigate basic development needs and relational dynamics. 

Q: How can parents ensure kids are reaping the benefits of social media without the liabilities? 

A: Social media is a door to endless exposure. As parents, it's our responsibility to ensure that this exposure is within appropriate maturational boundaries. Here are some best practices for ensuring social media is a positive thing in your kids' lives.  

  • Help your kids prioritize, and set boundaries. Social media should be off-limits until after your child has completed homework, household chores, and extracurricular activities.

  • Understand that social media can be triggering. On more vulnerable days, social media can be hazardous to kids' self-esteem and mental health. Help your kids gauge whether they're in the right mindset to be online. 

  • Stay in regular conversation with your kids about their experience on social media. Ask them about their favorite platforms, how they feel about the responses they're getting to their posts, and so forth. 

  • Be honest about your access. Explain to your kids that while they are learning to navigate the world of social media that you'll be monitoring their usage to ensure their safety and protection.  

Q: What are some possible signs that kids are using social media in unhealthy ways? 

A: Obsessive scrolling through social media, or an intense reaction or refusal when you ask your child to put down their device, may suggest an inability to create healthy use-boundaries or that social media is being used as an escape. Negative mood changes that occur during or after social media usage may indicate your child is seeing something or interacting with someone that is adversely affecting them. Last, if kids become fixated on taking and filtering the perfect picture, or compulsive about tracking their "likes," this should raise potential concerns about deeper insecurities and vulnerabilities.

Taken in isolation and seen infrequently, these things don't necessarily indicate unhealthy use. But if a pattern develops where you're noticing these things repeatedly, this should raise concerns. 

Q: How can parents address concerns about social media in ways that build rather than damage trust with their kids? 

A: Our kids aren't always going to volunteer information, so when we see red flags, it's essential that we address our concerns appropriately. Before a potential disciplinary action even comes into consideration, our primary concern must lie in building trust and helping our child gain self-awareness and insight. This requires that we make a neutral observation without passing judgment or asking too many questions. For example, we might say, "You look a bit upset after seeing that picture your friend posted," or "Every time I ask you to get off your phone, you seem to have strong feelings about it."  

Because teenagers' minds are still developing, they aren't equipped to fully understand their own behaviors, delay gratification, grasp the consequences of their actions, or necessarily make sound, rational decisions. But by simply making a non-judgmental observation, allowing our child to privately reflect on it, and gently asking important questions, we can nurture development. Through this kind of loving contact, our kids come to recognize their vulnerabilities, establish healthy boundaries, and look within and to those who truly love them for the acceptance, validation, and admiration they so desperately need.