I’m sure it’s not news to you that we are seeing an exponential rise in the use of social media, especially in the youth demographic. If you read my previous article The Consequences of My Reality Check you may have found solace in the narrative of my experience with my teenage boys due to the parallel situations you have experienced in your own homes (or maybe I have caused you to lose sleep thinking about your sweet toddler and the off-grid home you are now considering building to live out the remainder of his childhood days). Either way, I hope this article brings you a bit of peace and inspiration. After countless hours of research, I have concluded that the leading methods to parental success with kids in the online world are transparency, education and monitoring.
As an 80’s baby and a lover of all things technological I like to think that I am up on latest capabilities and benefits of most social media platforms. I use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn on a daily basis. I market my services, display photos, speak in hashtags and use apps that allow me to post on multiple media platforms with one click. If I have already lost you and you are a parent of a child of any age I beg you to create a profile and begin using one, or more, of these social media sites… if not all of them.
The problem with “being on top of it” (aka thinking you know everything) is that 99.9% of the time…. You are sorely mistaken. I learned this in the hardest way! My teen boys learned all too quickly how to hide apps on their phones in pages of folders, create profiles on sites requiring an age minimum with false birth dates, and invent user/profile names I would NEVER think to search. Unfortunately, the possibilities are endless and the methods are all too easy to search on Google and Youtube.
Our curious, innocent-minded kiddos may or may not consider the dangers of the information they share or whom they are sharing it with… but the frightening truth is that most parents aren’t even aware of the multitude of dangers or how to go about protecting their kids. This may come as a shock to you... (it was most definitely a shock to me) but the most effective way to keep them safe is to teach them HOW to use it safely. This was hard for me to admit because years ago my husband and I had determined that the rule for our house would be that social media would not be allowed until the age of 16 and even then it would be limited to only platforms we deemed appropriate. Let’s pause to have a moment of 100% sobering honest to goodness truth… there is not one site that is completely void of material that is inappropriate for most adults let alone kids/teens… so here are a few tips that we have found helpful in revising our stance on social media. We are keeping the door closed but opening the window to social media in our household:
1. Be honest. In the most formative early years of brain development children will ask “why?” because they are curious. They are entertained by the expressions on our face and the inflection of our voice. As a tween/teenager the “why?” begins to form the foundation they will build their morals and standards on. Try to move past labeling social media as dangerous and using the “because I said so” mentality. Have a real conversation about WHY it is dangerous. Discuss scenarios. For example… “You may create a Facebook account but you may only friend people you already know and have interacted with in person.” I could state this rule to my child and then continue on to the next rule on my list, considering it good enough that I have verbally stated the rule… OR I could expand on this thought with “accepting friend requests from a stranger could be dangerous.” This is better… but I could then say “I read a story about a boy your age who…” finish this sentence with an article you read about someone they can relate to who was harmed in some way by connecting with a stranger on Facebook. Show it to them and let them read it… Now “bring it home”… encourage them to imagine how it would feel to have this type of experience happen to them and how you would it would impact you.
2. Construct a Family Contract. As parents, we can easily come up with a list of “don’ts” for using the Internet and posting on profiles. What you may not realize is that kids also have a list of “don’ts” based on the culture, perception and response of their peers. Sit down with your teen and share your boundaries but make sure to ask them about their own boundaries. Encourage them to open up by asking questions like “What is something that one of your friends posted that caused people to react negatively? How did that affect your friend?” … “How would kids at school react to girls in your class posting pictures of a beach day while wearing a very revealing swimsuit?” … “What kind of post would you comment on positively?” … “What is an example of a post that moved you to respond negatively?” … Your kids may surprise you with the rules they have already set for themselves. You can read more about the teen perspective on posting do’s and don’ts published by The New York Times, it’s a very eye-opening article.
3. Perspective. “If you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all.” How many times have we beaten this horse? Statistically, our children will fully form the ability to empathize between the ages of 13-15 depending on gender, upbringing, hormones and social pressure. Encouraging them to refrain from making negative comments or forming an opinion and judging a peer based on one post may not hit home unless you find a way to help them make the connection to the way they would feel if they were on the receiving end of this kind of behavior.
4. Read Up and Monitor. The world of technology is developing and changing so quickly it is nearly impossible to keep up with. Educate yourself on tracking/monitoring software for your computers and offers through your wireless providers for your cellular devices and tablets. Set reminders on your calendar to comb through the folders on their personal devices, open unfamiliar apps, check browser history, scroll friends lists and read text messages and view photos. If anything strikes you as inappropriate be sure to approach it as a conversation and not a confrontation if you want your teen to be transparent with you and receptive to your concerns.
5. Subscribe. Find a reliable source to keep you informed. Here is where I get to sound my “mitten state pride” … Protect Young Eyes is a Michigan-born organization of seriously smart and passionate individuals committed to bringing an awareness to local communities about safe online practices for youth. You can join their mailing list to ensure you stay current, browse articles, find platform and device specific information and how-to guides, download resources and even find a schedule of public forums to attend or request a presentation in your own community. If you are not a Michigan resident I would suggest searching “internet safety for teens in (insert your city, state)”
6. Model Behavior. Lastly, one of the most crucial tools to keeping your teen safe is leading by example! Monkey see monkey do RIGHT?! Whatever the rules may end up being in your home, be sure you are willing to commit to following the same guidelines and standards you are holding your kids to. Be mindful of the lessons you may be teaching when you AREN’T giving verbal instruction. Send a clear message about who you hope and desire they will strive to be as an adult… versus the alternative message… “I don’t have to follow the rules because I’m an adult and I’ve earned the right not to… when you are an adult you can choose which rules to follow too.”
Click on the links below to learn more about the mind of your teen, social media and helpful tools! I'd love to know what is, or isn't, working for you in your home!!