Coming to Terms with Your Child’s Entry into the New World of Social Media
My sixth-grade daughter wants an Instagram account. I know “everyone’s got one,” but what about mean girls, stalkers, and topless Miley Cyrus photos? She might think she’s ready, but I’m not.
Social media is a part of our kids’ lives, like it or not, so it’s futile trying to keep them away from it entirely. Lots of kids who are prohibited from opening an account get sneaky and open a private account under a fake name. Others just go on friends’ accounts to see all the stuff you’re keeping them from. You may be thinking, “Yeah, and drinking is still gonna happen in middle school but that doesn’t mean I am going to buy my eighth grader beer.” True. And social media does have a dark side just like underage drinking. But the analogy dies right there because, unlike underage drinking, social media use among middle schoolers can have quite a few big upsides … if you’re willing to be a part of it.
Personally, I like social media and use it to my advantage. Through Instagram, I can keep up with my kids’ ever-changing interests, hobbies, passions, and friends. They’re changing quickly, and Instagram gives me clues as to ways I can steer conversations so our talk is relevant to them.
Equally as important, social media gives me a peek at the sad stuff going on in my kids’ and their friends’ lives. Last year, a girl at my daughter’s school attempted suicide. When she found out, my daughter went back to the girl’s Instagram account and showed me her posts from days before the attempt. We noticed several that looked like cries for help. It was a good way for us to talk about the sometimes overwhelming emotions of being thirteen and better ways to handle them. Now I keep an eye out for posts that signal a kid may need extra support. If I see something, I may offer an encouraging compliment or talk with my own kids about being sensitive. In the event that things looked really bad, I could go further. Yes, the things we see in our kids’ social media world may be upsetting. We may get offended by some of it. But, as NBC taught me as a kid, “The more you know, the more you grow.” Social media can be a great peephole into our kids’ inner thoughts if we are brave enough to take a look. Rather than throw out social media altogether, I integrate it into our family lifestyle so I can mitigate the risks by keeping an eye on it and use the positives to our advantage.
Social media changes quickly. Whether your kids are on Instagram or another of the latest, greatest platforms that keeps popping up, the philosophy and guidelines below will help you wade through the social media waters with purpose and pleasure. For the purpose of continuity, I’ll use Instagram as the platform of choice for this section.
Most parents I know lump Instagram into one of these categories:
- Pointless social media app that lets kids share pictures. Big deal.
- Growling social monster that eats up our kids’ self-esteem, making them uncharacteristically mean, weak for approval, pathetically brand conscious, and limp with self-pity.
I offer an alternative view:
- Creative communication tool that kids use to express their interests and concerns, and powerful parenting tool that lets us stay connected with kids when they begin to pull away during the tween years.
Are you slightly more interested now? I hope so, because Instagram has a lot to offer. That’s not to say there aren’t important ways to be cautious. As you would before you put any tool into your child’s hands, you must teach him how to use it safely and productively. But before we get into the how of Instagram, I’ll make a case for the why.
When kids become tweens, they begin the important job of developing an identity apart from their parents. Naturally, this involves spending more time alone or with peers and less time tucked under your parental wing. This can be sad for you, and you may wonder how to stay close during this period of change. Social media is a great way to witness your child’s developing values, humor, relationships, interests, and concerns. It gives you the opportunity to talk about things that truly interest your kid. Perhaps you notice on your daughter’s account several posts of hockey pictures. You never knew she even liked hockey! Maybe she has found a genuine new interest, or maybe the cute boy in fourth block plays hockey and she’s quick to seem a fan. Either way, seeing a new trend allows you to open up casual conversations that could lead to bigger topics.
Some of you are thinking, fine, it’s one thing to see pictures of hockey, or horses, or even a shirtless Liam Hemsworth, but I’m concerned about the far less innocent things my kid might see—or post—online. What kinds of things are we talking about? Beauty contests in which kids rank one another based on appearance. SpongeBob dropping the f-bomb. A middle school couple kissing. (Honestly, this is one of the grosser things you could ever see. They look like children, and I can only imagine the noxious smell of Skittles and Axe body spray colliding. Barf.) A cartoon marijuana leaf. Kids trying out sexy poses. An expression of self-hatred.
If your child doesn’t have an account that you monitor, you will not see the photos she sees. Because you will not see them, you will miss the opportunity to talk about them with your child, leaving her to process the experience alone or through the comments of her peers.
So, how do you help your child use social media safely while still having fun? That is, after all, the point of it all. Here are my Instagram (and general social media) Guidelines for you and your child:
- Before you give your kid access to any new technology, let her know you must have her password, and you can browse through the content at any time.
- Set the expectation that you will review your child’s use … less and less as she exhibits proper online behavior. Yes, that means you can and should read her texts, posts, and other technical and public forms of communication. Do not read her diary or journal.
- Set expectations for proper etiquette and safety online. If boundaries are crossed you can address them without your child being shocked because you’ve already established your limits. For example, at my house, the list includes: no using your last name on social media accounts, no posting pictures of your school, no name-calling, no allowing your phone to post your location, no swearing, no embarrassing someone else (siblings included!), and no spamming your followers with too many posts.
- Start a conversation by talking about something positive you saw on her account. Later that evening, start with “I love the picture you posted of the kitten hangin’ in there ’til Friday. That was so cute! Did you edit that?”
- Push only if a casual attempt fails. “Hey, I know this is uncomfortable but your ticket to using your device and being allowed on that platform is talking to me about things like this. I won’t do it often, but occasionally if something is offensive, we need to talk about it to be sure you understand. That’s my job. Here is what I found troublesome about that picture …”
- Promise to never post negative or corrective comments on your kid’s posts, or her friend’s posts, online. If something catches your attention and warrants a conversation, promise you will have it privately.
- Most importantly, promise you will have this conversation calmly and rationally. The moment you flip out because you saw something inappropriate on Instagram is the moment your kid resolves never to tell you anything important again. Quite possibly, this is followed by the moment he creates a new Instagram account under a disguised name.
- Wait a while to bring up errors in judgment. If you see something that concerns you related to ethics, morality, or manners, wait until later that evening or the next day to say something. Don’t comment on what shocks you as you look over your child’s shoulder. She’ll turn off her device and shut down the conversation immediately. If you have a safety concern, address that right away.
- Bring up an offending item casually using exploratory questions. “Did you see that picture of the guy grabbing the girl’s chest? I couldn’t tell if the girl was embarrassed, could you?”
- Don’t intervene often. Truly, this is your kid’s new playground and he won’t want you hovering there constantly. Save the comments for serious issues of safety or morality and let the rest of it slide. He’s just trying to figure things out so, whenever possible, default to cutting him some slack.
- Ask your child what level of positive interaction is acceptable to him. Is it okay to compliment him on a picture? What about his friends? Let him tell you what’s acceptable and what’s embarrassing. In my opinion, less is more when it comes to interacting with your kids on social media. You want to say enough so people know you’re there, but you’re not trying to be the life of the party.
- Be sure any geotagging/mapping feature is turned off. This means pictures your kid posts will not identify her location.
- Do not allow your kid to post any photos with your home address or activity locations obviously displayed.
- When naming his account, tell your child to use his first and middle name only, or a nickname (SoccerStar2000) but not his last name.
- Have a conversation with your kid about collecting “likes.” Some kids use Instagram as a way to campaign for popularity. They enter “beauty contests” or beg for more “likes” on their posts. Ask questions that encourage critical thinking like, “Why would a girl want to be evaluated on her beauty by a bunch of people she doesn’t know?”; “How do you think the lowest-ranked girls feel?”; “What would happen if you and a friend posted the same picture but hers got more likes?”
- Encourage your kid to devote an Instagram account to a hobby or theme she loves. My daughter, for example, loves Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, so she has an Instagram account devoted to the books and films. No one even knows she manages the account, and one of the actresses in the newest Hunger Games movie gave her a compliment on Instagram, which made her day, week, LIFE. Her experience is not about collecting likes from peers; it’s about celebrating her favorite stories with fans who feel the same way. Full disclosure: she has a personal account, too, so we’ve covered all of the points above.
- Encourage creativity. There are lots of apps your kid can download to make edits. Rather than just posting “selfies” (a picture she takes of herself, often with a weird duck-faced expression) or reposting what others have made, your kid can become an experienced young graphic designer, selecting images, quotes, and treatments to convey her personal style.
- Teach your child how to create a well-rounded social media identity. Your involvement can’t begin and end with you telling him everything he’s not allowed to do. Inspire him with ways he can create a complete picture of himself online. See my infographic for creating a more well-rounded online image.
- Know that even if your kid rolls her eyes, she still hears you.
Should you allow all social media? No! My least favorite app right now is ask.fm. It’s a popular site where kids post polling questions with the option to answer anonymously. Because of this, it often turns vicious and/or sexually perverse quickly. Avoid this one at all costs.
Teach your kid to use social media well and to present a more well-rounded online image with these graphics.
Instafun #2 Concerned about narcissism? Show kids how to use social media well.