From Instagram to TikTok, kids (and adults!) have no shortage of tools to express themselves to the world. No matter what you do as a parent, the moment your child has a social media account, they have a level of independence greater than what we had the day we got our driver’s licenses. While you can monitor and manage the use, you cannot control it completely — motivated kids will always find a way around the rules. Your biggest weapon is to develop a sense of responsibility within your child so that they make good choices and use good judgement. Know that they will make mistakes along the way and set yourself up to help support them and help them to learn from those mistakes. Help them develop a sense of responsibility for their actions and their words so that they know that technology and social media are tools for life, not life itself.
While most of the content generated is harmless, these platforms require that users exercise good judgement. Their use has also resulted in an increase in online bullying because it can be very easy be a “keyboard warrior,” sitting behind a keyboard and writing things one would never say in front of others. One way parents can help their children use these tools safely and help prevent bullying is to help them learn what is OK to post or share and what is not. For example, kids can be taught the “Would I say that to your face?” test. If someone is not willing to say something to a person face-to-face, they should think carefully about whether they should post the comment to any form of social media or say it to anyone else. You can add “Would I say that in front of your sibling or your best friend or your mom or mymom” as tests as well. These strategies are somewhat timeless; I employed them before the advent of social media as well. When I was a teacher and a student said something hurtful or inappropriate, I would call the parent and ask the child to repeat exactly what they said to their parent. This tactic forced kids to think before speaking, take accountability for their words and actions and make better choices in the future. The goal is to help your child develop their own inner voice to determine whether something is right or wrong and to remind them that they are accountable for what they say and do. (This is actually a lesson some adults could stand to learn as well.)
When we talk about bullying, we often focus on the how and what without thinking about the why. One way for us to combat bullying is to help our children develop empathy for others in a deliberate way. It is important that we talk to our children from a young age and throughout their lives about acknowledging how their words, actions and experiences affects others and how they can influence how others feel in a very real and deep way. These conversations can be very powerful and parents should look for opportunities to have them, using real life experiences as the subject.
As a society, we can be desensitized to many traumatic events; even some school shootings barely make the news. Children can easily begin to lose empathy and their ability to acknowledge their impact on others. Social media, which makes it easier to say or do things that once had a limited audience, can provide kids with the attention they crave. But kids may have a hard time differentiating between good and bad attention because we as a society send mixed messages. One can post a hurtful comment or mean photo about someone and collect hundreds of likes, conflating this for having done something good, without having to acknowledge that the subject of the post may feel hurt or embarrassed. It can be very confusing and as parents, it’s up to us to help our kids understand and accept responsibility for the impact of their words and actions.
Be open with your kids about the risks of engaging in online behavior.
The news is full of the risks posed to children when they begin engaging in social media. Stalking, child predators, sexting and gambling/video game addiction are all very real problems brought on by the improper use of technology. When a child has a social media account, they have the power to interact with the world and for the world to interact with them. The door is open and your child is in the game. Talk to your children honestly about the risks they are taking every time they engage in online activity. We don’t want to scare them, but we do want them to understand the potential negative consequences of their actions. Some believe today’s parents are hypersensitive and that the world is not more dangerous than it was 40 years ago. It’s certainly true that things like stranger danger have been a consistent threat for hundreds of years. But technology gives people much more access to each other. Predators have existed for a long time, but it’s only recently that such a person living in Europe could chat or play Fortnite with a teen living in Birmingham, Michigan, exchanging phone numbers or addresses in the process. These possibilities are scary to think about. It’s tempting to want to say, ‘My kid is too smart’ or ‘It won’t happen to me.” The reality, though, is that it can and has happened. As parents, we have to face scary possibilities and protect our kids without isolating and smothering them. And adults can be just as susceptible; think of the numerous incidents that stem from online dating apps. We all need to be sure we are protecting ourselves as we engage online.
Teaching social media safety can mean an opportunity to build better relationships with your kids.
Does this mean we should shun all technology and keep our kids completely away from it? No, it does not. For better or worse, all of these tools are part of life now. For as much harm as they can do, they also do a lot of good. Like anything else, we have to teach our children how to use social media and we have to be a part of their learning. It is like teaching kids to swim. In the beginning, we accompany them into the pool, put on floaties and hold them tight. Eventually, they begin to learn with a small group. We have to feel comfortable in their ability before we take off the floaties and allow them to swim on their own in a pool while we watch from the side. It takes a long time before we have the confidence in their skills and judgement to allow them to jump in a pool or lake by themselves and on their own. The skills needed to use social media safely and responsibly are no different. Kids are not born knowing how to swim on their own and kids are not born knowing how to use social media on their own.
Parents should set very clear expectations of how kids are allowed to use these tools. If you allow your child to be on a social media channel, you should be on it as well and your accounts should be linked (friends, etc.) If they resist, they may not be ready to use social media responsibly. While there are risks associated with technology and social media use, there is also an opportunity for you as a parent to get to know your child better based on what they post, share and comment. You also have more substance to fuel genuine conversations. You may discover that you both find the same kinds of things funny or maybe you disagree about something that you both read. Try not to judge them — remember that you want to know who your child truly is, not who they think you want them to be. Use the opportunity to coach, not criticize, if you see them abusing their social media power. They will also learn about you. You can use these tools to help your child become comfortable talking to you about their life, friends and what they’re going through, building a loving, trusting relationship.