Steering your child through the minefield that is social media for teens is a bit like setting out to climb a mountain: There’s no way you can anticipate every danger, all you can do is try to give them the skills to deal with issues as they arise.
This was driven home to me the other night when at a parent information session at my son’s high school there was much discussion about kids using social media. One element I found fascinating was that Instagram has become a big issue. Facebook and Twitter are obvious, but Instagram? I had looked upon Instagram as a neat way of making a photo look good and sharing it. It turns out that many kids are using it as another social network and one which, because it is centered around photos, has the possibility of sliding off-course very quickly. Doing a bit of research on this it became immediately apparent that (a) very many parents had been equally oblivious to the social networking possibilities in Instagram and (b) there are many horror stories about Instagram, in the same way there are many horror stories about Facebook.
Now I’m not really pointing the finger at Instagram here. My point is that there’s really no way as a parent you can target specific applications in trying to address social media. It’s like that fair-ground game where you hit one thing on the head and another pops up somewhere else. You’re never going to win.
Of course there is the burnt-earth approach in which you simply ban your child from the computer or iPad or whatever. But really, today that’s not winning either. Not only do kids increasingly need to use the technology for school, they are only ever going to learn how to navigate this stuff through using it. That’s made tougher by the fact that the lower age limits on most social media apps are being largely ignored by kids and parents alike. I know of very few parents who are enforcing the 13-year-old cut-off.
So what can you do? With younger kids there are some practical things such as insisting that your children use computers in a public room rather than hidden away in their bedroom and insisting you have access to their passwords. But ultimately there comes a point when these approaches wont work. At some point you need to be able to trust your child – just as at some point you need to be able to trust them to walk home from school by themselves. The trick in this is equipping them with the skills required to navigate.
That’s no easy task in an environment where we adults are learning the skills ourselves. Add to that the fact you’re dealing with kids who are going through the difficult early teen years where they are often struggling and learning how to deal with each other face-to-face and the task becomes herculean. But it can’t be dodged.
So what are the skills they need? A short list might be:
- Don’t engage with strangers: it can be hard to avoid talking to strangers online – the skill lies in politely not letting them get too close.
- Don’t use your real name on anything.
- Never, but never, give your address or telephone number.
- Restrict all your networks to friends only – know how to use the privacy settings on any application you are using.
- Don’t assume anonymity – in spite of the efforts to be anonymous, assume you’re being watched, that a teacher or parent will see the picture you’re posting or even that an older you will look back and wince at what you are doing.
These things might seem obvious. But in a little personal experiment yesterday I was astonished to find how many of my son’s friends could be found by their real names on Instagram, complete with school details and readily identifiable photos. And this in spite of the digital citizenship classes I know they’ve been through at school.
Every family will have different answers about how to deal with social media. But what’s increasingly clear is that it’s an issue that can’t be ignored. There’s a conversation that needs to be had before problems arise if the kids are to be equipped to avoid pitfalls. And that conversation cannot be about the specifics of Twitter or Facebook – we need to give our kids the skills to deal with situations in whatever application they are using today, or tomorrow. We don’t need to give them a fish, we need to teach them how to fish.
Image: Endless Origami.