A Parent's Complete Guide to Twitter

Teens follow celebrities and current events on Twitter.
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Where can you go on the Internet to get caught up on your latest celebrity news and see what your BFF is doing at the same time? Twitter, of course! This social media platform launched in 2006, so even if you aren’t a regular user or know how to use the service, you’ve probably at least heard of it.

However, if you’re not using Twitter, chances are that your teen probably is. A 2014 study of U.S. teen media use found that 55 percent of teens use Twitter and, of that, 35 percent use it daily.

Like every other social networking site, Twitter has its risks and its rewards. Rather than ban your teen from taking part (potentially leaving her out of her friendship loop), take the opportunity to learn more about the service and how it can be used appropriately.

What Is Twitter?

Here are the basics: A Twitter user posts a message, known as a “Tweet,” that contains up to 140 characters. The message can contain an image or link to a video, or it can be plain text.

People who choose to “follow” that particular Twitter user see it on their feed; however, unless the account that’s sharing the message is set to private, anyone—with a Twitter account or not—can see that message. Another user can retweet the message, sharing it with their own followers.

How Is Twitter Different Than Facebook?

At face value, they’re similar—they both connect users by sharing messages, photos or videos. However, tweets are limited to those 140 characters, while Facebook messages don’t have a limit.

Additionally, on Facebook, users have a mutual agreement to be “friends,” while Twitter profiles are entirely public, unless the privacy settings are changed. One big difference, though, is that Facebook, generally, remains the place to connect with people you know from your everyday life.

Twitter often connects people who have never met and have nothing in common except for the subject that’s been tweeted.

Since tweets can only be 140 characters, users often share links to articles and other content on the web.

How Old Do You Have to Be to Create a Twitter Account?

Twitter’s Terms of Service indicates that the site is for 13 and over only. However, it doesn’t ask for age when a user signs up, so it’s easy for pre-teens and younger to make a profile.

Twitter does also state that, if an underage profile is brought to their attention, they will take steps to remove it from the site.

Who Can See My Teen’s Twitter Profile?

A Twitter bio can only be 160 characters long. That means your teen will have to describe himself in just a few words. But those words he uses, along with his profile picture, are able to be viewed by anyone.

By default, a Twitter account is public, so anyone—even those without their own account—can see your teen’s profile and posts. If the account is set to private, only those who are manually approved to follow the Twitter feed can see the posts.

However, the public can still see the account’s photo, bio, and username.

It’s also important to note that any Tweet sent while the account was public will remain visible for everyone to see, even if the account is later locked down.

Can My Teen Communicate Privately With Anyone on Twitter?

Even though the purpose of Twitter is to share messages with the world, you can communicate privately with another user through a Direct Message, or DM. Direct messages are like emails or chats where users can talk. But your teen can only receive direct messages from people she agrees to follow.

If your teen is on Twitter, and you’re monitoring her online activity, you may want to check her direct messages folder every once in a while. Even if she’s not replying to messages, she may be receiving inappropriate content from others.

What Are Hashtags?

Even though the hashtag (#) is now a mainstay of Instagram, Facebook, and other social media platforms, it was originally created (or, given that the pound sign has been around quite a while, perhaps “adopted” is a better word) by Twitter as a way to categorized tweets.

Using a # sign before words, such as #television or #weather, categorized those messages as being part of that subject, and makes them easier to search. The hashtag is often used just for fun, without any intent for it to be practical for categorization.

Sarcastic hashtags are popular among teens. For example, one might post a picture of a failing grade with a hashtag #bestdayever or #smartkid.

What Risks Does Twitter Pose to Teens?

Like all social networking sites, Twitter does pose some online dangers. For example, the service doesn’t do much—or anything, really—to keep explicit content from minors, and there’s a lot of explicit content available. A search for anything related to sex will return tweets with adult images, videos, and links to inappropriate websites.

Even if your teen doesn’t search, it can show up in his newsfeed if he follows the feed of someone who decides to share one of these tweets. Other than reminding your teen of house rules and monitoring his usages, there’s not much you can do to stop this.

Another significant risk of Twitter—or, really, any social media use—is possible damage to a teen’s online reputation. Because teens have always been in a world with internet access, they don’t always recognize the problems it can create, and they don’t think about what a Twitter post says about their character.

A teen can delete disparaging or racist, sexist, or misogynistic messages and inappropriate photos at a later time, but he can’t control who has shared or seen them. Before allowing your teen to have any social media account, counsel him on why his online reputation matters in this day and age.

What Rules Should I Put Into Place?

There are some general social media strategies you should implement to keep your teen safe. In addition, here are some rules you might want to implement specifically for Twitter:

  • Require your teen to make her account private so only approved followers can see his posts.
  • Celebrities can be followed, but your teen shouldn’t follow anyone with explicit content on their feed.
  • Your teen should not use her real full name as a username, but rather a pseudonym or abbreviation of her name.
  • Your teen should not share any other personal information on Twitter, including school, location, phone number, etc.
  • He should not post photos of other people without their permission.

Should My Teen Just Avoid Twitter Entirely?

If your teen has no interest in joining Twitter, then he certainly shouldn’t feel required to be part of the social media circle. If he wants to be in that stratosphere, though, it doesn’t do him any favors to not allow him to create an account.

He probably will create one behind your back anyway (they are free, after all), and social media etiquette and use is an important skill to have these days.

Instead of banning Twitter outright, teach your teen how to use it appropriately and monitor his activity. Make it clear that you have the authority to check his tweets and messages at any given time and without warning. As long as he plays by the rules, your teen can stay in the know and stay safe on social media.


Duggan, Maeve. “Mobile Messaging and Social Media – 2015” Pew Research Center. August 2015. 

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