It’s likely that far before you allow your child to have a cell phone or a social media account, they’ll witness you using social media. Of course, you want to educate your kids about social media and technology in general before they are allowed to use it on a personal device. And maybe you envision that education as a major “talk” you have with your child one-on-one, similar to the talk you plan to have about the birds and the bees.
But the truth is, you’ve already been educating your child about technology and social media most of their lives — you just didn’t know it. You’ve taken pictures of birthday parties and life milestones and posted those to Facebook and Instagram. They’ve heard you tell your spouse that so-and-so commented on this or that picture. Your kids have seen you scrolling and liking and reading posts and laughing. They’ve learned that social media is entertaining.
Your kid is also getting an education from their friends. Even if your child doesn’t have a phone or a social media account, there’s likely a child in your kid’s friend group who has one or who has access to one. Maybe these kids have gathered around an older brother’s phone to look at provocative pictures — either gruesome or sexual — and they’ve learned that social media can be used to shock and make people uncomfortable. Kids aren’t often educated about what social media’s purpose is, why it’s a popular tool for connecting, and how to participate in a social media community responsibly.
Teaching Kids About An App’s Purpose
So, let’s go there. This is going to take some effort on your part, because I want you to be educated, too. For the particular social media app you’re considering allowing your child to have an account with, type the following phrase into Google: “What is the purpose of [name of social media app]?”
Within about a half-second, you’ll find 1.7 billion results for Facebook, and about 1.6 billion results for Instagram. These results will be more than adequate for you to learn what these applications aim to contribute to the world. From the purpose statements, think about how you can translate that purpose into how it can affect your or your child’s life. What you’re doing is educating them on participating in the community versus observing the community.
Teaching Kids that the Internet is Forever
Our kids need to understand that what they post online in any forum, on any device (even those platforms that claim their posts “disappear”) are permanent posts. Each post creates a unique web page for that entry. And though some posts disappear from apps like Instagram stories or Snapchat posts, those web pages still exist somewhere, and can be surfaced from online databases. If found, they could affect your child’s career aspirations, their reputation, and their credibility.
In fact, have you ever heard of the Wayback Machine? The Wayback Machine is a digital archive of the World Wide Web, founded by the Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco. It allows the user to go “back in time” and see what websites looked like in the past. For folks who had blogs or Myspace pages back in the day? You might want to see what exists about you online.
Also, while you’re down that rabbit hole, try Googling yourself and your significant other. I can guarantee your children will — if they haven’t already. Make your online reputation and digital footprint something that won’t come back to haunt you by being thoughtful about what you decide to share.
Find Out Who Your Kids Follow on Social Media
Additionally, who your child follows on social media is just as important to their future. Naturally, your child will want to follow their friends, and for the most part, that will probably be harmless. So, until you’re given a reason to restrict which friends your kids can follow, allow them to follow their classmates and teammates.
Aside from friends, you’ll also want to educate your child on how to identify questionable accounts. From evaluating profile pictures to gauging the use of hashtags, it’s important to guide your children toward making smart decisions about who is worth following. A general rule of thumb is: If you don’t know them in real life, you don’t follow them online — even if this person claims they’re friends with one of your friends.
When faced with friending someone they don’t know, or when asked to type something or send a picture they don’t want to send, make sure they understand that they can say “No” to anyone. And in doing so, they aren’t any less of a friend or student or person. This is a lesson you’ll have to repeat time and again. If you weren’t aware, sexting is the new first base. Let that sink in for a moment. Our kids are living in a whole new world, with pressures unlike those we faced as tweens and teens.
Create an Atmosphere of Communication at Home
Another way kids form their identity — which includes their online identity — is through their family. In most ways, I am who I am because of the family I came from. For better or for worse. I believe that sharing family stories with your children gives them a foundation and a history from which they can build the life they want. Again, helping a child build a strong foundation for their identity is a lesson you’ll repeat for years and decades to come.
For you, there may be other things you’d like to educate your child about before they have access to a mobile device or social media account — lessons about kindness, authenticity, gossip, and modesty. Commit to an atmosphere of communication in your home so that the family learns and grows together. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable with your children and surface mistakes you’ve made, decisions you wish you could take back, and friendships you should have avoided. Let them know that despite appearances, mom and dad are imperfect. This simple acknowledgment can help create space for more open and honest conversations.
Conversations are the key to success when it comes to technology. If you want to have better conversations around what your child is doing online then I suggest that you monitor their activity. This way, you’ll have insights into what is actually happening online and will guide your conversations to better outcomes. The best company to help you do this is Bark. Bark’s award-winning service monitors texts, emails, and 30+ of the most popular social media platforms and apps for signs of digital dangers. If something concerning is found, you’ll get an alert so you can check in and make sure everything’s okay. Sign up for a seven-day free trial at www.bark.us to see how it can help you keep your child safe online and in real life.
For more advice on this topic, check out this Parent Cue Podcast on parenting in a world of social media!