Chances are if you’re reading this you use some type of social media- Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Pintrest, or others. And if you have a child over the age of say, 10, he or she may be using it too (I’ll say he from here on out to keep it simple). If your child is not, he would like to be. You may have heard something like, “All of my friends have one!” Even if your child doesn’t yet use social media, you have probably been asked about it- especially if you use it. Particularly if you spend a lot of time on the computer or if you’re frequently checking messages on your iPhone, your child has some idea of what you do online.
I’m sorry to say it, but even if you absolutely forbid it, your child will find a way to get a Facebook profile, Twitter page, or whatever it is that his friends are using. You may say, “no way”, or you might even hate social media, but the bottom line is- as a parent, it’s your job to learn about this stuff, like it or not. Everyone has their opinions about it, and it’s up to you to make decisions, but this way you can be at least somewhat knowledgeable; you can make more informed decisions about what you let your child do or not do; and you can more effectively keep your child safe. …The alternative, of course, is to pretend your child is too young to be socializing online, or you can just say “no”. After all, your kid always listens to you, right? Well, unfortunately that is the approach some parents take when it comes to things like “the talk”, and sadly, in many cases the result is a teenage pregnancy. Some parents also take this approach when it comes to alcohol and drugs. Sure, using Facebook is unlikely to lead to pregnancy or drug use- not directly, anyway, but if social media isn’t used properly, there can be any number of negative consequences.
So, where do you start? #1 is to familiarize yourself with social media- what it is, what sites are out there, and how they are used. Do some Google searches if this is new to you. Even if it’s not, I guarantee your child may just know more about it than you. Social media is essentially how people stay connected these days, and it’s possible to do it 24/7. Tools like Facebook allow you to send messages (like e-mail) and instant messages; share photos, video, or other content; play games with friends; comment on other people’s content; and more. In 2012 social media is almost more popular with “the older crowd”, however, so you more than likely have a handle on it.
Second would be to see what sites are out there and check out some of the more popular social media sites (already mentioned here), you can listen to what your child says when he talks about the Internet, or you can have a conversation about what your child believes others are doing. Sites have guidelines, including a minimum age for use. Facebook’s is 13, though I know there are plenty of younger kids using it (it’s very easy to lie!).
Should your child want to use something like Facebook, decide for yourself, talk with your partner, or consult with other parents regarding when is an appropriate time. If you do, there is no right answer. Many parents I’ve talked to allow their children (usually teenage) to join Facebook, but they require that they be “friends” with their child. That way, they can monitor their child’s activities, and maybe (just maybe) their child will be more careful about what kind of content they post (text, photos, videos, or links to websites), knowing that their parent(s) may see it. I’m not advising you to check your son or daughter’s profile five times a day or to ask him or her about every little thing (he will accuse you of spying and invading his privacy either way), but it is important that you have some idea about what your child is doing online. Do you have a right to do this? You’re the parent, right? I would refer to this as part of limit-setting, which is your job as a parent. You do this in other ways, so use of the Internet should be no different (I’ll discuss this more in another post). So just when is the right time? Well that’s up to you. Social media was invented for college kids, but it’s popular with high schoolers, and it’s likely that most middle school kids are also using it. I would say that your child’s level of maturity is a good indicator of whether you think he could handle something like this or not.
Lastly, and I can’t stress this enough with any parent/child issue, it’s important to have a good relationship with your child. Hopefully you can talk about most issues and your child feels as though he or she could come and talk to you if something was wrong. Try to have an open door policy. Talk about use of the Internet, set clear limits on it (for example, no Internet/computer use after bedtime), and in general, encourage your child to bring up things he may have on his mind. Of course, your job then is not to overreact. If you do, I can guarantee your child will keep the issue a secret the next time. Studies show that more frequent and more positive communication in families leads to improved relationships and better outcomes.
Social media, and the Internet in general, is something that can improve our lives in a lot of ways, making life more fun, making it easier to stay connected, and so on- but it has its drawbacks as well. Adults need to use it responsibly (I’ll cover this in another post too), and as a parent you have to teach your child to do so. This doesn’t mean your child will never make a mistake (he will), but hopefully you can reduce the frequency or seriousness of any mistakes that do occur. If you’re lucky you can strike a balance between allowing your child to have some freedom, while also having an idea of what he is doing and feeling like an effective parent.
Remember, if your child is set on getting a Facebook profile, Twitter page, or something else, he’ll get one. Let me leave you with a little anecdote. I once worked with a family who had no computer at home and the mother forbade her children (two were teenage boys) from having Facebook profiles. She feared they would get into trouble through inappropriate behavior or they would be taken advantage of by someone. The boys also did not have cell phones, and they couldn’t get on Facebook at school. And because there had been some behavior problems, the boys were rarely able to go anywhere but school. So you would think they would have no access, despite wanting to be involved with it. So no problem, right? I found out one day, as did the mother, that one son had a Facebook page, and he did for some time. He would log on to it using his friend’s cell phone, which he had access to on only rare occasions. I don’t know that he got into any trouble with it, but Mom wasn’t happy to say the least. The moral of the story is, if your child wants to do something, he’ll find a way. This doesn’t mean you have to allow it. You’re the parent and it’s up to you what you’re okay with. But it does mean you should become familiar with what’s out there, and that way when you hear about it, you will be in a much better position.
In future posts I plan to cover the types of trouble children can get into with technology (including cyberbullying), how to set appropriate limits with your child’s use of technology; and how to model appropriate behavior with your own use of technology. Please feel free to write with any questions or comments.