"How do you talk to your kids about what is appropriate to post on Social Media and apps?"
I’m a teacher. I’m actually a pretty good teacher. So when it came time for my sons to learn to ride their bikes, I boldly took on the challenge. The attempts came the summer after they each turned four. Off came the training wheels, and on went my best running shoes. I gave them a killer pep talk, made them practice falling, and then, when I felt they were ready, we took off. And by “took off,” I mean I awkwardly ran behind them, up and down the block, holding on to the back of their bikes until they steadied. And then I slowly… let… go.
But I didn’t let go entirely. Yes, they learned to ride that day (both within about an hour). But the bike-riding instruction? That did NOT end. “No flip flops. Where is your helmet? Make sure to watch for cars backing out of the driveway. Stay near the side of the road!!” My sons, now six and eight, have yet to complete a bike ride without my helpful advice.
And luckily for them (though admittedly, they might not see it that way), I have a lot of advice to give. I was once a child. I rode a bike. I got older and learned to drive a car. I know the rules of the road, and I have more than 35 years of experience on said road. So, I’m very aware of its perils.
You know what I didn’t grow up with? Computers. Cell phones. Social media. Sure, I’m learning about them—I’ve been researching technology, social media, and relationships for more than a decade—but if we’re sticking with the bike analogy, I’m sporting a tricycle. And I’m looking ahead at this information superhighway with seemingly infinite lanes, and the vehicles change every day, and I am acutely aware that there is NO WAY that I could ever know all of the dangers of this boundless entity!
So—What’s a parent to do? HOW do I talk to my children about social media and app usage while riding a virtual tricycle? How do I convey to them the permanence of their digital footprint and the potential gravity of their online missteps? Well, it’s rather simple. And you don’t need to know everything about the internet. You just need to know about LIFE.
My four-step plan:
1. Acknowledge your naiveté. Your child knows WAY more than you about growing up with social media and technology. And they always will. As such, you will be relying on them to tell you about issues they face. Authoritative parents—ones who listen to their children—make happy, well-adjusted children. And although some preliminary research has shown that parenting style may not influence whether a teen engages in risky online behavior, opening the door for them is an essential window into their world.
2. Explain digital footprints billboards. This might be a tricky one for many parents, as they don’t really understand the ins and outs of these digital trails we blaze. However, we DO have the experience to know that our past actions may affect our futures. And that the way we feel and think right now might be very different from how we feel and think later. Show your child that tattoo you got in the back of a van after a concert in high school, which still has the faint blue outlines despite a lengthy laser removal process. Tell them about the scathing note you passed to your best friend in high school, where you questioned her morals and told her she was evil. Tell them about the way-too-revealing outfit you wore to the summer carnival. Now—have your child imagine that all of these missteps are on a HUGE billboard—the chronicle of your life. And as much as you’ve tried to erase them, delete them, and apologize for them, they remain. There is a huge price of shame in our current culture (watch Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk for a great perspective). And that is something that we adults know way better than our children.
3. Emphasize the Golden Rule. What would your child do if he saw another child being beat up in the streets? Or a peer being yelled at and shamed in the school hallway by a group of mean girls? Would they help them? Would they join in? Children need to understand that these online situations are real, and that if they hurt someone online (or don’t step in when someone is being hurt) it is has repercussions as big as or bigger than if those things are done IRL (in real life). Not sure yourself on the issue? Consult the experts and rely on statistics and helpful tips from resources like Cyberbullying Today.
4. Set up a monitoring plan & FOLLOW IT. Despite our best efforts, we sometimes slip up. Kids do. Parents do. (I once ate 70 dark chocolate sea salt caramels in 3 days). So—we need to establish a back-up plan for making sure that there is nothing dangerous or inappropriate about our children’s social media and app usage. Many of us are already doing this—Pew Research found that about 60% of parents of teens are monitoring their teen’s web visits and social media profiles. But this monitoring should not be some sort of post-hoc, knee-jerk reaction to you hearing about a teen getting murdered by someone she met on Kik. You need to communicate with your child from the onset that this is the plan, that you are a team in this plan, and that you will double check to make sure that what they are posting is safe and appropriate.
Then, you need to… Repeat. Repeat. Repeat… these four steps as if your child’s life depended on it. Because it does. Because if you do not have this conversation with your children, it’s like… Well, it’s like putting a 4-year-old at the wheel of a Lamborghini. Alone. On the freeway. During rush hour.
Photo courtesy of dune.