Who are your kids friending on Facebook? What are they really texting to their classmates? How much online time is too much?
Too often, parents who are misinformed about the social web (willfully or otherwise) will shut their kids out of it completely, only to find they are logging in anyway. If you’re not taking an active role in your child’s online life, you may be missing important opportunities to ensure they are on the path toward “digital citizenship,” and protected from inappropriate content and people.
To help shrink the tech-culture divide between parents and their kids, we sought advice from the experts, who draw not only from their own research, but their family experiences as well. Keep reading for some valuable wisdom on raising the first fully digital generation.
Take an Active Role, and Do Your Homework
For kids, social media can no longer be dismissed as a time-waster or distraction. The networks your kids use to rate their friends and comment on photos will eventually become their core business tools and career prerequisites. Those who don’t learn to use them responsibly will face a severe disadvantage.
So how do you grant kids the freedom to explore while still keeping an eye on their safety? Start by educating yourself.
“Parents can’t just decide to keep their kids at a distance from all of this. There’s no way to opt out,” said Melissa Rayworth, a freelance writer who tackles parenting and digital issues for the Associated Press, Babble.com and other media outlets. “Parents need to learn about the sites and devices their kids want to use, and then set strong boundaries. If you don’t know what something is or what it’s about, dive in and start using it.”
“If [parents] engage and have their own experiences on FacebookFacebook, LinkedInLinkedIn, [etc.], they will better understand the attraction, the possibilities, and the issues that their teenagers face,” said Sue Blaney, author, speaker, and teen parenting blogger at PleaseStopTheRollercoaster.com.
One important step, especially when it comes to younger children, is to set up their social media accounts with them.
“Parents should guide their teens through the privacy settings on Facebook and all other social networks on which they participate,” said Blaney. “Make no assumptions here. Instead, invest the time so you can make informed and considered choices about privacy.”
Being a part of the sign-up process from day one will establish you as the gatekeeper of social media, and not a barrier for your kids to inevitably circumvent. You can become part of their online life while learning the ropes yourself.
“Have your teenager show you around the web. Be a ‘curious tourist’ in your teen’s digital world,” Blaney continued. “Ask your son to show you his favorite games, or ask your daughter to share her favorite sites, videos or activities. This can be a pleasant way to engage with your teenager and to learn from her.”
Safety and Privacy
Safety and privacy are probably the two biggest concerns of parents when it comes to social media. While there are some software and profile setting solutions, your greatest asset here is likely education.
“[Kids] need to understand the differences between private sites and those that are completely open to the public and leave them vulnerable,” said Theresa Walsh Giarrusso, who authors the Momania parenting blog for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And if they can’t tell the difference, then they need to be taught to stay off of questionable services.”
Because social media has become such an integral part of our daily lives, the time has come to merge “online” and “real-world” pursuits of common sense into one educational package for kids.
“We need to teach them as they grow up that ’stranger danger’ exists in the virtual world, as well as the real one — whether it’s the weirdo in our local park or a weirdo following you on FoursquareFoursquare,” said Giarrusso. “We also need to constantly be hitting home, ‘think before you act online.’ The repercussions can stay with you and be devastating.”
Kids may not always be up for a boring web safety lecture from mom and dad, but there are some more “edutaining” resources out there, like this PSA clip from the popular Disney Channel cartoon Phineas and Ferb. One overarching tenet kids should take away here is, if you wouldn’t do it in real life, don’t do it online.
Fortunately for parents of younger children, many of the brands that seek to engage them online, do so via kid-only games and networks that are a far cry from the content free-for-alls that abound on sites like TwitterTwitter. Rather, these networks have built-in safeguards that will put most parents at ease. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should set kids adrift and walk away from the screen.
“Many social media sites for young kids only let them post pre-approved phrases, so they can’t divulge personal info, and no one posing as a kid can say anything inappropriate,” said Rayworth. “But at some sites you need to turn those controls on, so definitely explore any site your child wants to use.”
When Giarrusso discovered her five-year-old son had signed up for the Cartoon Network’s online multiplayer game FusionFall, she not only sat down with him to explore the site, but reached out to the game’s administrators to get the scoop on the safety features. She turned her conversation with the game’s executive producer into a blog post so other parents could benefit from her investigation.
While most parents won’t need to go quite so in-depth, making contact with a real person at the other end of a kids-only social network is never a bad idea.
Rayworth also notes that online safety concerns don’t stop at inappropriate content or strangers. There’s also the potential for invasive marketing.
“So many kids’ products now have a social networking component to their site. A few months back my son went to the Hot Wheels site and he had the option of spending time on the site logging which cars he has, and talking to other kids about them,” she explained. “Things like this are potentially a lot of fun, but you have to keep in mind that your child is being advertised at the whole time … I think it’s really vital to limit that.”
Teens can face a whole new set of safety and privacy challenges on the larger networks, most of which are open to everyone, and are far more public.
“In terms of safety for older kids, every expert I’ve spoken with says, ‘don’t let them have a computer in their room,’” Rayworth noted. “Keeping it in a common space gives you more access to what they’re doing, and a clearer idea how much time they’re spending online. Kids may also make better decisions if they know mom and dad are nearby and can see the screen.
“The complicated thing is figuring out how far you want to go in the name of safety,” Rayworth added. “Some parents aren’t comfortable reading their teenager’s texts or accessing their Facebook messages. Others think it’s important. One option with Facebook is telling your kids that they must friend you … but agreeing that you won’t be posting on their wall or commenting on their posts. Agree to just stay in the background.”
The Fine Line Between Participating and Spying
While it’s important to take an active role in your child’s online life, there are personal boundaries that should be respected and adjusted based on the child’s age, maturity, and earned trust. While public posts on a social network may be fair game, things like e-mail messages and passwords could be considered an important threshold of maturity.
“Parents have a right to have their kids’ passwords, particularly younger teens,” said Blaney. “When teens get into the upper levels of high school, different rules may make sense for teens who prove themselves to be trustworthy.”
Remember, social networks are just that — social. They tend to be an extension of what kids do and say in their “physical” social circles — much of which is not intended for parental consumption.
“During the teen years, they often experiment with various personas. Am I like Britney? Am I like my older cousin Jamie? A teen may change her look, her friends, [and] her activities during this natural and important exploration process,” said Blaney. “It makes sense that some of this experimentation will take place over and through the communication channels that they utilize, including texting and social networks.”
If you’re intruding on your teen’s personal online space, she’s likely to take it underground. Remember, she’ll always be one step ahead of you technologically, so it’s unlikely you’ll win that race. If you’re willing to give up having passwords, you should trust that simply being a part of her online community (from day one, if possible) will be enough to ensure good behavior.
“Be a presence on your teen’s online profile, but in the background,” said Blaney. “Some parents like to post on their kids’ Facebook pages, but that isn’t necessary to do an effective job of monitoring (and may be a real turn-off to your teenager). Often, just letting your teen know that you look regularly is enough.”
Setting Limits Without Being a Luddite
As with any digital pastime, too much social media use can become a distraction, especially for kids. Yet locking them out of the social web (either partially or entirely) would be doing them an educational and cultural disservice. The key is to find balance.
“It’s stunning how many hours per day kids spend with some kind of screen,” said Rayworth. “I think if most families step back and really do the math, they’ll find a lot of consumption even among little kids. One option is requiring that for every hour your kid spends online … they then spend an hour doing non-screen things and hanging out with live people in person. That can be eye-opening.”
“Technology is changing the landscape, the demands, and the context for [children’s] educational experiences,” said Blaney. “Again, without a real understanding and appreciation for how technology is being used and the fundamental impact that it has on their child’s future, parents run the risk of being a hindrance in their teen’s education.”
Be fair but firm, and have a good understanding of the technologies to know when it’s becoming too much.
Good Parenting? There’s No App for That
When we originally set out to explore the issues surrounding kids and social media safety, we were in search of software or network settings that could automatically filter inappropriate content. What we quickly learned from these interviews was that the challenges for parents are far more nuanced, and solving them takes work.
“Much like driving a car or going off to college, parents have to hope that they have instilled good values and have taught their kids enough to handle situations they will encounter on social media,” said Giarrusso.
There will always be a technology and culture divide between parents and children. But with a little extra effort, perhaps it doesn’t always have to be so big.
More social media resources from Mashable:
– Why Banning Social Media Often Backfires
– 4 Tips for Integrating Social Media Into the Classroom
– 6 Free Websites for Learning and Teaching Science
– How Twitter in the Classroom is Boosting Student Engagement
– How Social Gaming is Improving Education