There's an unexpected antidote to the social media stress that has become a part of growing up today.
When 13-year-olds believed that their parents were closely monitoring their social media, they were less distressed by online conflicts with their peers, according to a new study.
CNN commissioned the study to explore how 13-year-olds use social media and how it affects them. Researchers captured and analyzed the content of more than 150,000 social media posts made by more than 200 8th-grade students around the country. They started collecting the data last September and followed the group through the spring. The data included posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, but not the students' private messages.
Along with tracking their posts, the researchers surveyed the children about how often they felt depressed, anxious or alienated; they also surveyed their parents. The results were published in an hour-long special on "Anderson Cooper 360."
Even if many parents remember the rough-and-tumble years of middle school -- the social insecurity of trying to find where one fits in -- earlier generations weren't subjected to a 24/7, real-time ticker that broadcast our social status to our peers. That's part of what social media becomes for many young people: a way to gauge popularity and self-worth in a very public way.
Thirteen-year-olds don't perceive a difference between their social lives in person and online. For them, social media is just as real a way to hang out, stay in touch and socialize.
"For young people, this is a big part of their social life," said researcher Marion Underwood, a clinical child psychologist and dean of graduate studies at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Some of what the researchers documented shouldn't surprise us. There was a fair amount of social aggression, vulgarity and bullying. But there was also a lot of positivity, validation and support from friends through social media. There are aspects of sharing and interacting on social media that make teens feel good, said Underwood.
A teen's perception of how closely their parents kept an eye on their social media accounts correlated to how distressed they felt by online conflict: the more monitoring, the less stress, the study found. Parents, however, tended to overestimate how well they kept tabs on their children. They also underestimated the troubles their children were experiencing online, compared to what the teens themselves reported.
The biggest source of the 13-year-olds' online stress is their friends -- not rivals or strangers. There are passive-aggressive, underhanded techniques of excluding or attacking a peer: A teen won't tag someone in a group photo on Instagram, or will make a derisive remark on Twitter without naming the other person, although everyone knows who the intended target is.
Parents said that trying to stay on top of their kids' social media was like trying to keep up with a runaway train. Plus, it seemed like much of the problematic interaction would happen in private messages or on anonymous sites, like ask.fm, or on hard-to-track apps like Snapchat.
But it appears that just the effort matters.
Co-researcher Robert Faris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California-Davis, said it may not be the monitoring itself that reduces kids' levels of emotional distress. It could be that those parents were more likely to have positive relationships with their children and more likely to be talking to their children about their interactions online.
"I sympathize with parents today, for sure," Faris said. "I was overwhelmed, and I was getting paid to analyze this stuff."
Underwood offered specific suggestions for navigating your children's digital world:
-- Get phones out of their bedrooms at night. "If you don't do anything else," she said, "do this."
-- Don't try to read every word of what your child posts or rely on snooping software. Tech-savvy teens find ways around it, plus parents may not understand the subtle language used to exclude or belittle a person. Be aware that what they post to their friends is often highly curated and doesn't tell the whole story of what may be going on in their lives.
-- Create your own social media accounts and use them so you can experience how it feels. Follow your children's accounts.
-- Talk to young children about how to use social media, what your expectations and boundaries are and ask them what they want to get out of it.
-- Set limits. For instance, no one should be using a device at the dinner table.
-- Turn off the geo-locators on your children's posts. They allow any of your child's followers to know exactly where your child is or was.
You don't have to be perfect -- just present.