It was probably inevitable. Now that 70% of teens are friends with their parents on Facebook, some are looking for less supervised places to socialize. A recent report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that even though most teens feel obligated to maintain a presence on Facebook, many expressed “waning enthusiasm”. Their reasons? The site has been “colonized” by adults, and there’s too much drama. “Teens are looking for a place they can call their own,” observes Danah Boyd, a fellow at the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard University. “Rather than all flocking en masse to a different site, they’re fragmenting across apps.”
Having teens on a variety of social media apps makes supervision more difficult. The classic advice—“keep the computer in a public space”—is hopelessly quaint, especially for teens who socialize on cellphones. One response is to use monitoring software that will alert parents anytime a child sends or receives a message that’s inappropriate. (Ten of these programs are reviewed by Mobile Independent Phone Reviews at mireview.com)
Although surveillance may be a good short term fix for some kids, it can obscure the long-term goal—raising kids who use good judgment about social media. These kids resist the temptation to behave poorly just because they are online, and they know how to protect themselves when they encounter bullies, trolls and other online predators. How do you equip your child with those essential life skills? Here are a few suggestions:
Limit social networking of any kind for middle school students. Pre-adolescents are learning how to manage relationships and the process isn’t always pretty. Middle school kids are very aware of themselves and not very aware of others. Even the nicest kids say mean things– and are devastated if someone says something mean to them. Being part of social media compounds the damage by making clumsy comments, ill-advised fashion choices and failed attempts at humor permanent and more widely available.
Check the apps on your child’s phone. Review the apps on your child’s phone every time you pay the phone bill. Ask questions that will help your child think critically about social apps: How did you find out about the app? Does it do what you want it to do? What information does it collect about you? Does it broadcast your location? How much time do you spend with it? How could it be improved? What kind of community does it create?
Be aware of the connection between social media and self esteem. For many young people, social media intensifies the pressure to be popular. They may obsess about how many followers they have, how many likes a particular post attracts or parties they didn’t attend. Parents can’t micromanage this part of a child’s life—teens learn by making social mistakes. At the same time, they can buffer the impact of social media by giving kids plenty of positive attention, supporting healthy off-line friendships and pointing out the limited shelf life of popularity.
Teach self-protection strategies. Talk to your child about how they can respond to mean or crude comments with tactics similar to those they would use offline. If possible, ignore bad behavior. The other person may just be having a really terrible day. Don’t respond in kind because that is likely to escalate the problem. Whenever possible, use humor to defuse conflict. Take advantage of privacy settings to block people who are always mean or negative. If a post is threatening, save a copy and share it with a trusted adult.
Be sure your child knows you have his back. Many teens don’t talk to their parents about social media problems for fear that parents will overreact. Let your children know that you have confidence in them to handle most situations but you want to know about any online interactions that feel scary or overwhelming. If a child comes to you with an online problem, resist the urge to take charge. Instead, help your child think through how he or she wants to handle the situation. What is motivating the person who is causing the problem? Is this a relationship that matters to your child? Does he or she have offline contact with the person? Most important, listen!
When you think about it, the social skills young people need to succeed with social media aren’t all that different from the ones that they will need in the offline world. As a parent, you can help your children stay focused on the big picture—what kind of people do they want to be and what kind of friends will support them in becoming those people? For kids who keep those goals clearly in mind, the particular app they are using at the moment won’t much matter.
Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing the Growing Up Online column for ten year. She is also the author of Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart. Available at Amazon and Cooperative Wisdom.org. @ Copyright, 2017, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.