Parenting is hard. Many parents find parenting in an era of social media to be confusing, in part because they must advise their children to make sense of spaces that they don't understand themselves. It's easy to be afraid of what's new, but by focusing on technology, parents often lose track of the underlying social issues that their children are trying to navigate.
In many ways, the advice that children need to negotiate networked publics parallels advice that parents have always given when their children encounter public spaces. To address online safety concerns, parents need to help build resilience generally. With that in mind, I encourage parents who are concerned about online safety issues to initiate three important conversations with their children:
Public-ness. Hanging out online is a lot like socializing in any other public space. Youth may be there to socialize with their peers, but teachers and other adults may also be present. What makes the internet especially tricky is that youth leave traces that may be viewed by people at a different time. As a girl, my mother taught me that I need to put my best foot forward whenever I was in public. For today's youth, that public is the internet. In order to help youth navigate networked spaces, parents need to talk with their children about unexpected and invisible audiences. How might what you write be interpreted by someone other than your friends? What happens when what you say is taken out of context? Rather than focusing on what's right and wrong, it's important to begin a conversation about what it means to engage publicly in a networked society.
Empathy. People often say or do mean things when they themselves are hurting. They lash out at others to get attention. Some do so anonymously because they want to see how their actions might prompt others to respond. All too often, we focus on helping youth address bullying by blaming the people engaged in meanness and cruelty, but developing empathy broadly from an early age is one of the best ways to address cyberbullying. Rather than blaming technology or blaming mean people, help everyone develop respect for others.
Sex and Sexuality. Many parents struggle with the birds and bees conversation, preferring to avoid the topic altogether or hope that offering a book will do. Unfortunately, some of the trickiest issues online - including sexting and pornography - often stem from the interplay of sex and sexuality. A conversation about sex and sexuality in a networked world needs to include a variety of issues, including navigating desire and respect, the importance of trust and the potential for trust to be violated, the desire to be loved and the potential consequences of falling in love. It never was simply about pregnancy and STDs, but networked technologies highlight how important it is that we go beyond those topics in our contemporary birds and bees talk.
The networked society that we live in today may feel radically different, but many youth are struggling with the things they've always struggled with.They're trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into the bigger world. They want to hang out with friends, but they're also trying to figure out the status games of their peers. All of this is playing out through social media. Parents are in a unique position to help young people navigate this networked world, but they need not fear the technology. Instead, parents should start having key conversations with their children to help them develop strategies for coming of age in a networked world.