When my wife and I were growing up there wasn’t any social media …. No Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or Snapchat. If you wanted to tell your friends something you rang them or you waited for the next school day. If you made a fool of yourself, only the people who were there got to enjoy it and pay you out!
As adults we have morphed into very heavy users and I literally use social media as mynumber 1 work tool, so it’s only natural that our kids begin to ask about using it themselves. On some levels there are lots of fun things that they can do with their friends online and also real world things that are just easier if they can organise themselves using social media for messaging, calling etc. We have all heard the tragic stories though of lives ruined and of online bullying that damages so many young people every year. No parent wants that to happen to their child or possibly worse, for their child to be involved in inflicting that on others.
Social media is networking on steroids and it allows us to get the word out about events and opportunities, it allows friends to stay connected over distance or time and it really can help young people to stay informed and in-the-know about important things. Many careers are helped by social media and everyone from artists to sport stars and professionals can stay connected with their peers and fans. Much of what I learn comes from YouTube and there are certainly amazing educational resources that rely on social media.
If fact there is a lot to like and the modern world will demand these skills of its future workers. I don’t mean just the technical knowledge or the typing skills but rather the creative ways that people use these tools really makes a difference in their ability to learn, engage appropriately with others, express opinions and influence people … all good life skills.
Some of the dangers are the very same things as the opportunities. Having billions of people that you can interact with can be a blessing or a curse … depending on who you happen to connect with. To some degree you can control who you accept as friends or connections but you are also exposed to a lot of other people with very different views and ambitions. Your children on social media can easily stumble across extremely inappropriate content or discussions that could be damaging or even illegal.
My first 24hrs on Instagram was a real eye-opener … I was simply searching hashtags of my own capital city and seeing a flood of sexual images and full nudity (and worse). I know a lot of 12 year olds on Instagram who I think should not be exposed to that.
As in real life, the biggest dangers can come from those we personally know or who are in our geographical areas. Cyber-bullying by classmates or adults grooming our young people for real world meetings are a very common story. Attending a workshop with your friendly Child Protection Unit team is a real eye opener … within just a few suburbs of my house me there are over 100 convicted (and now released) sex offenders including many pedophiles. Many would be on the lookout for their next ‘connections’ and although social media is not the only concern, it is certainly making life a lot easier for them.
The upshot is that every parent needs to think hard about allowing access to social media and how they will manage that while they still carry some coaching responsibility. The first thing to consider is that the platforms themselves have age limits (eg Facebook 13y/o etc) which is a basic minimum guide. After that it comes down to knowing what it is that you are saying ‘yes’ to and having an active plan to monitor the interactions. Letting your kids have free reign in social media land is the same as letting them do anything they want in real life.
The way we have approached it is to ensure that the parents understand the system at least as well as the kids so that we know how to be involved, watch and teach them to use it properly. So if we decide to allow them to use say Instagram, then I need to spend a few weeks or more learning it myself … looking at what happens there and how to use it. This helps because I can troubleshoot for them but also I can connect with them and stay involved where possible. Initially you might limit their access to specific times and ask them to use it in public parts of the house so that you can watch and guide them. This may sound a little full on protective but we believe that its a genuine risk to them so we are helping coach them as with any other dangerous activity.
You can also try a few “What If” scenarios …
- What if you came across a friend in trouble?
- What if someone sent you a private message that accused you of something?
- What if you saw a discussion about you online?
Helping your children think through this before if happens sets up good patterns for later on.
Some Other Thoughts
- It’s important to think about what you post on your social media too. Be careful about posting photos and videos of your kids without checking with them. Some countries are now allowing children to sue parents for posts on Facebook about them as kids … that is extreme but it is important I think to at least ask.
- Extreme violence, pornography and similar material is often illegal and is proving to be very damaging to young developing brains. It is important to read up on this as most parents do not realise that extent of these things available online. (Hint: it’s not a few naked people standing around or draped over a car.)
- Social media is a huge distraction for adults and its addictive nature effects some people more than others. It can be a massive distraction from kids education taking up valuable time too.