Navigating healthy friendships and supporting your teen online

07 Apr 2022

Friendships are important to teenagers on many different levels. They can help teenagers feel a sense of belonging and acceptance, have a positive influence on their social and emotional skills, and contribute to their personal growth. On the flip side however, learning to navigate social influences and understanding what constitutes a healthy friendship can be challenging, especially when interacting online. As a parent or carer, championing your teen to build the right skills to navigate friendship issues successfully and independently is an important part of supporting their mental health and wellbeing. 

We know the internet is a ubiquitous presence in many teenagers lives and while it is a place of connection and community for the most part, as a parent or carer of a teen it can sometimes be hard to navigate rewarding versus potentially unsafe use. Whether it’s browsing social media, chatting to friends or gaming, it’s important to understand some of the key issues that young people may face with their peers online and how to best navigate them. 

30%* of parents and carers express concern when it comes to their teens' social media practices, with bullying listed as a top concern. And while bullying can occur in the classroom, outside of school or online, young people are more likely to bully someone online because they feel less accountable for their actions. Our research shows that young people who experience harmful online behaviours may not always recognise it as bullying, particularly if it comes from a friend or peer. One in four teens feel worried, stressed or down about their friendships several times a month and, while parents might refer to this as ‘bullying’, teens are more likely to think of it as miscommunication or friendship issues as they don’t want to think badly of their friends. 

Even though only one in four teens identify with being bullied, a ReachOut report found that nearly half had experienced bullying behaviours. The study also found that online bullying has a much more serious impact on young people’s mental health than face to face or social bullying. Some of these harmful online behaviours include spreading rumours or lies about someone online, sending or posting images or videos intended to humiliate or embarrass someone, trolling, sending threats to someone, or setting up and using fake online profiles to embarrass or intimidate someone.

Some common signs that friendship issues are impacting your teen may include increased stress and anxiety, poor concentration, lower school attendance and performance, difficulty sleeping or decreased self-esteem and confidence. Our ReachOut Parents Coach, Afra Dufrance, said that parents sometimes struggle with supporting their teen with friendship issues or online bullying because they don’t know the best way to help them take control of the situation. For example, when Anna* saw her daughter investing a lot of time online, becoming more irritable and withdrawing from her offline activities, she did not know how to best approach the situation. Anna started to encourage her daughter to focus on activities away from the particular group that was upsetting her online and slowly but surely her daughter started to re-engage with the things that she previously loved like sport. The key takeaway here is that Anna did not ban her daughter from being online where the issues were occurring but rather redirected her energy into things that would have a positive impact on her wellbeing. 

And while there is no one-size-fits-all solution to navigating friendship issues or online bullying, being proactive, empathetic and supportive is a good place to start. Here are some proactive strategies that will help you to navigate friendship issues as a parent or carer of a teen.

  • Talk to them in their language. Rather than talk about ‘bullying’, try talking to them about ‘friendship issues’. Let them know that it’s never okay for friends to behave in a negative way towards them and that you’re there to support them.
  • Educate yourself. Read up on bullying so that you’re well prepared should it ever occur. If you’re worried that your teen might be taking part in the bullying or upsetting a friend, you can also check out this three step action plan.
  • Create an open dialogue. Make time for a regular chat with your teen. Listen to them, thank them for opening up to you, and encourage them to take the How healthy is your friendship group? quiz. 
  • Talk about social media. Make sure your teens’ social media accounts are set to private and talk to them about the importance of blocking, deleting or reporting anyone who is upsetting them online. You can check out the A Parent’s Guide to Instagram for tips on helping your teen be happy and well on social media.
  • Embrace offline activities. Encourage your teen to practice self-care and make time for offline activities like going for a walk, cooking or playing music. That way, if harmful online behaviours do occur they can refocus their energy in positive ways and maybe even expand their social circles.  
  • Seek help. If friendship issues or bullying are having an ongoing impact on your teens’ wellbeing, consider seeking help from a professional. You can also encourage your teen to participate in safe online peer-support through the ReachOut Forums for young people.

While it’s important to support your teen if they’re having issues with friends or being bullied, don’t forget to practice self-care and look after yourself because you can’t pour from an empty cup. You can visit the ReachOut Parent Forums, sign up to ReachOut’s free one-on-one Parents Coaching or check out the eSafety Commission for more information on safe and positive online practices. 

For more information about ReachOut, visit ReachOut.com, ReachOut.com/Parents and ReachOut.com/Schools

*Survey by ReachOut of over 500 parents and/or caregivers in Australia. Survey was nationally representative by gender, state, and remoteness status.

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