Lauren Bondy, MSW & Karen Jacobson, MA, LCPC, LMFT—Co-Founders of Parenting Perspectives
The playground for tweens and teens today is electronic. It is a world of social media (e.g., chat rooms, IM, texting, Facebook, X Box Live, Twitter, etc.). Whereas our generation grew up running around neighborhoods for hours and riding bicycles miles from home without an electronic umbilical cord (i.e. cell phone), kids today are roaming, playing, forming relationships, testing limits, making mistakes, exploring, experimenting, and forming their identities and values in online digital spaces. Below are tips for parenting in the age of social media:
Stay involved…but not too involved. Teach children to navigate the digital world responsibly. Having passwords and “spot checking” activity from time to time allows parents to stay in touch with their child’s interaction and intervene when appropriate. If something deeply concerning, extremely inappropriate, offensive, or dangerous presents itself, parents can seek answers. Your child may be angry when you monitor them or express resentment that you don’t trust them—and that’s okay.
Parents also need to refrain from over-involvement in monitoring online activity. You may see things that bother you but do not warrant conversation with your child. Some parents may be tempted to comment on every little thing that feels distasteful, but this would be a mistake for your relationship. Manage your emotions to avoid reactivity.
Understand their thinking. When you find inappropriate content or language, ask open-ended questions about what happened, and refrain from lecturing and attacking. “I’m wondering how Susie might feel if she read what you wrote?”, “If someone wrote this about you, how would you feel?” This approach will help your child stay calm and reflect on how others may have felt as a result of what was posted.
Set expectations for online behavior: Teach kids to value and protect their own reputations, and to respect those of others. To do so, establish rules around social networking, such as waiting to join social networking sites until age 13, using social media only in ways that they’d be okay with you seeing (so, no sexting), and keeping personal information (including address or phone numbers) private by not giving them out online. Discuss privacy settings, and require passcodes. Finally, talk with kids about specific issues: When using social media, what language is acceptable? Is talking about others in negative ways okay? What about discussing teachers/friends/ family members? Are all photo postings acceptable? What crosses the line? Let them know you will be present in their online lives as they learn to use digital media responsibly
Set a digital curfew. Studies show that sleep is interrupted when teens receive texts at night. Likewise, homework is interrupted and children become distracted when they receive notifications of a new chat messages, texts, or emails. To avoid a daily battle, make a time when all media are off limits into part of the routine. Involve kids in establishing a media plan for their entire day, and agree on weekday and weekend hours. Consider allowing social media time only after homework is done or during homework breaks. Ask them, "What's the best place to charge your cell phone and keep it from distracting you?"
Have a plan and follow through. When kids violate the rule (and they will), say something like, “I know you want to chat with your friends, but you still have homework. Would you like to wait until your next break or chat when you are done?” If you have a digital curfew that’s not being honored, you might collect the cell phones and lap-tops at curfew until the next day. Deliver this consequence calmly and respectfully.
Explore together. When your child receives new technology or ventures into new social media, sit down and explore the account together. Calmly talk about the wonderful aspects of digital media and address concerns or misuses that could occur. Discuss digital footprints, permanence of online information, and online reputations.
Take advantage of teachable moments. Discuss risky online activity seen in movies, books, by your friends or their peers. Talking about other people’s choices may feel less threatening and create safe opportunities for discussion. When parents see hurtful behavior in social media and say nothing, it condones the behavior sending children the wrong message. Remain calm and non-judgmental.
Take time to connect. Your support in the media world is grounded in daily lessons that happen in the non-media world. Parents’ greatest influence is their connection to their child, so make time for that connection despite living in a fast-paced world. Attune to your child’s feelings and needs. The more connected children feel, the easier it will be for parents to start difficult discussions, which gives kids more opportunities to learn how to make wise choices.