Teens, Tweens & Tech: Q&A With Expert Ana Homayoun

Have a tween or teen on social media? This article is a must-read.

So, your t(w)een has gone social.

You didn’t grow up with Instagram, Snapchat, or YouTube (…let alone a bonafide internet connection). You definitely have questions, and probably some concerns.

Knowing how (and when) to navigate sensitive conversations around screen time, privacy, and social media with kids, tweens and teenagers is so, so important… But it also can leave a lot of parents feeling confused and, well… A bit overwhelmed. 😰

That’s why we reached out to Ana Homayoun — renowned digital parenting expert and author of the newly released Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World.

In this interview, we asked Ana some questions about parenting technology in 2017, and she kindly shared some important insights for OurPact parents of teens and tweens…

Thanks so much for taking the time to share your expertise with our community, Ana!

You have just released your latest book, Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World. We’ve already ordered our copy and can’t wait to give it a read… What can you tell us about this book? Who did you write it for?

I wrote Social Media Wellness to provide practical, pragmatic solutions for parents, educators, and students looking for ways to promote better digital habits and choices.

I read article after article about the various issues social media, smartphones, and technology cause for teens and young adults... And I’ve seen these issues experienced first-hand. I’ve also spent nearly two decades working in the heart of Silicon Valley, and have focused the past five years specifically on finding solutions for balancing tech that actually work. This book combines my findings and personal experiences with an actionable plan to help families and educators get screen time under control.

As an extra bonus resource, I created in-depth readers’ guides (there are different versions for parents, educators, and students) to accompany the book and put its content into action. I encourage anyone who purchases the book to go to my website and sign up for a free guide.

Can you tell us a bit about what you do, and how you first got involved with teens and social media?

I started working with students in 2001, and focused on helping middle school, high school and college students improve organization, time-management, personal productivity and overall wellness.

When students first came to work with me in the early 2000s, they would tell me their main distractions were food, their siblings, pets, and staring outdoors. About a decade ago, I noticed that more and more students were spending time online. (Remember: when I started my work, there was no Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram.)

Over time, I learned that students face a challenging paradox: the very technology teens need to get their work done also provide their biggest distractions from getting that work done. This really resonated with me, and ever since, I’ve been passionate about helping teens navigate this obstacle.

“… Students face a challenging paradox: the very technology teens need to get their work done also provide their biggest distractions from getting that work done.”

What would you say is the most common question you are asked by parents about technology?

It depends on the age of their children…

Parents of middle school students mainly ask me questions around organization and time-management, or about what age is appropriate for a specific application.

Parents of high school students often ask me about the latest, trending apps, or what they can do to help their kids get more sleep.

How about by teens?

Teens often ask me questions related to wellness, and are interested in how my strategies can help them complete their tasks and homework more efficiently, so they can get more sleep — which is the number #1 thing they say they want to spend more time doing!

We can’t say we blame them! You recently wrote an article for the New York Times called The Secret Social Media Lives of Teenagers. What are a couple of the ‘secrets’ you share in this article?

The focus of the article is about how we’re having the wrong conversations with our kids, and that parents and educators who focus on instilling fear often don’t realize it simply drives kids underground.

There are so many ways kids can store images, apps, and messages in hidden vault apps like Calculator+, Vaulty. Adults don’t even know these exist, and they should.

Here are a few examples:

Hidden Apps:

These apps allow you to put content into a hidden ‘back-storage’ area of the phone, presumably to hide things from snooping parents or friends. This includes:

  • Calculator%, Calculator+ — apps that look like calculators on the phone but when users put in a passcode, it unlocks hidden pictures (Calculator%) or pictures, videos, and albums (Calculator+).
  • CoverMe also hides contacts, messages, notes, photos and videos, and allows users to access accounts from other devices.
  • Best Secret Folder has a simple icon that is disguised as “My Utilities” and will activate an alarm if someone tries to gain access with the wrong password. (Vaulty, below, does the same thing but takes a photo).

Vault Apps:

  • AudioManager (Android) & Hide-it-Pro (iTunes) look like audio manager apps, but when users press and hold the app, a lock screen is revealed. After a password is entered, users can access hidden messages, photos, videos, and even other apps.
  • Vaulty allows users to back up pictures and videos online, and take screenshots of whoever tries to enter an incorrect password. Their subscription service allows users to back up pictures and videos online.
  • Vault is an Android app that looks like the Google photos app and allows people to hide videos, photos, messages, and files.

Hidden folders:

Both iOs and Android devices have ways that users can hide apps easily by simply putting them in folders with harmless sounding names. For instance, a teen could name a folder ‘Workout Apps’ where they put the apps they don’t want their parents to know they are using (… or these storage apps!). Scrolling through the teen’s phone, a parent would see a lot of apps and folders, but the name wouldn’t raise an eyebrow… Unless they knew what they were looking for.

“We’re having the wrong conversations with our kids… Parents and educators who focus on instilling fear often don’t realize it simply drives kids underground.”

It’s hard for parents to find a balance between being too involved and not involved enough in their teenager’s digital lives. What advice can you share for finding that digital parenting sweet-spot?

The most important piece of advice is for parents to know their kids, and know what their kids are using.

Many times, parents will tell me that they have no idea what apps their kids are using, or that they don’t know how to use the apps their kids are spending the most time on. There are few parents who would allow their middle school student to go to someone’s house they don’t know, but many give kids access to a smartphone — which is essentially the same as giving 24/7 access to the public town square.

I would also encourage parents to be more confident in their stances on technology use — I see so many parents bowing into ‘parental peer pressure’ because they are scared their child will be socially isolated or ostracized without a device or social media accounts.

Even if “all the other parents” are doing something, that doesn’t mean that your family has to as well. Every kid grows and develops at a different rate, and maturity matters. What works for one kid or one family might not work for another, and parents need to focus on the needs and developmental process of their own children when making digital parenting decisions.

At the same time, it is true that so much socializing — particularly for high school students — happens through digital devices. Teens aren’t calling friends’ home phones to make plans these days, they are sending group messages. So, if a child doesn’t have access to a mobile phone at all, it is true that they miss out on social opportunities in a way that wasn’t an issue ten or fifteen years ago. So, with that said, there is a balance.

Do you think it’s ever too late to get involved with a teen’s device habits? How can parents navigate conversations about social media and device habits with teens?

I don’t think it is ever too late to get involved with a conversation around a teen’s device habits. On the flip side, it’s never too early to set standards and have conversations around expectations.

These talks should ideally take place before a child has a phone, otherwise it can become much more challenging to set a standard. At the same time, most (if not all) parents pay for their children’s phone plan and those phones are under the parent’s name, so that adds a layer of responsibility that parents need to consider.

In my book, I dive into this particular topic, using a framework of healthy socialization, effective self-regulation and overall safety as a clear guideline for navigating conversations with tweens and teens around social media and device habits.

In your experience talking with teens, how do they feel about parental involvement in their digital lives?

Several of my students created this video on social media issues — even though it is not included in the video, teenagers often tell me how much they appreciate when parents create structure around effective self-regulation (tip #2 in the video).

Tweens and teens are often concerned about their personal relationships, and don’t want to disappoint their friends. When parents create structure around effective self-regulation, they are often secretly relieved (even though they would never admit it!), because it sets a clear boundary they can communicate to their network.

As well, teens do need adults to talk to — they are still trying to figure out so many things, and having adults who understand the technology they use gives them someone to turn to when things don’t go as planned, or they need a bit of advice.

“Teenagers often tell me how much they appreciate when parents create structure around effective self-regulation…”

Thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights and tips with our community, Ana! Here at OurPact, we completely support your mission to help families collaborate to establish balanced digital habits — so thank you for everything you do!

Ana Homayoun has just released her latest book, Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World.

For a limited time, you can BUY A COPY of Social Media Wellness, and then visit her website to receive a FREE parent, educator, or student workbook designed to help implement the strategies highlighted in the book. Paired with OurPact management, this book will help your family master a balanced digital diet in no time. 💪🏼

Have questions? Share in the comments below, and we will do our best to answer your questions or have Ana contribute responses!