Lately some friends, colleagues and clients have asked for advice on how to help today’s youth navigate the social media space safely and appropriately. While we generally spend our time counseling executives, community and business leadership, I thought this topic warranted some attention. As a parent of tweens, I appreciate that my kids are growing up in a different age, one that is digital, where people socialize and interact in a virtual space. I listen to parents who forbid their kids from participating in the online dialogue and, while I respect the age guidelines offered by sites, I believe it’s important to equip our kids for eventual participation. Posts, comments, instant messages, video uploads, tweets and texts are simply a natural part of today’s kids’ lives. They log in from smartphones, gaming devices, tablets, laptops, and e-readers. Recent research has shown that kids are having online conversations as early as age eight. Tweens are multi-player gaming, roaming Instagram (despite the addition of recent age restrictions), texting, and more. I think there’s a tremendous upside to all this social networking. It can be a fun, very positive way for kids to learn, research, collaborate, express creativity, and keep in touch with family and friends worldwide. Learning how to navigate the digital space will enable them to function in an increasingly digital world as a young adult and professional.
At the same time, there are risks when young people enter this space. Our posts can be viewed by the masses. The margin for error is low at a time when the likelihood for mistakes is relatively high. As parents, our challenge is to help kids share thoughts without being inappropriate, revealing, or hurtful. Guidance and parental involvement are essential. Here are some tips that I share with parents to help them coach and advise their tween and teens.
- Teach them to “think before you post.” I advise my kids to use a “teacher screen”. If you would show this post or picture to your teacher, then it’s ok to post. Also remind kids that everything can be seen, even if they only allow “friends” to view it. (Remember, a viewer can take a screen shot and share.)
- Make sure that you and your kids understand and set the privacy settings. These settings aren’t always straight-forward or clear, and some change with software updates. Monitor the settings on a regular basis.
- Teach your kids to be kind just as they would in person. A good screen is, if you wouldn’t say something right to someone’s face, don’t post it. (And if they would say something unkind directly to someone, that’s a separate issue that I’m not able to address!)
- Empower them to block and report any behavior that makes them uncomfortable. If someone posts something negative, uses profanity, or says something that makes your child uncomfortable, let him know that he can always come to you for help (even if he’s on a site you asked him not to go on). Open the door for this conversation, and encourage him to work with you to block or report improper user behavior.
- Teach your kids to always get permission before posting a photo or video of family or friends. Advise your kids to demand this in return as well. It’s basic respect and etiquette.
- Make sure you have an account and are online monitoring where your kids are participating in social media. I’m surprised by the number of parents who proactively say that they’re not on various sites, like Instagram or Pinterest, and they have no intention of going on. Pew Research published some interesting statistics on young people in the social media space. They conducted some focus groups, which revealed waning interest in Facebook because of increasing adult presence. I found this interesting, and it reinforced my intent to lead by example, and let kids know that you’re in the social space as well. Kids will likely be more cautious when they know you are in the digital space with them. It might even be a comfort. We can’t be on the playground at recess, but we can join (or monitor) the online chat.
Advise your kids to not post their locations. Many sites have built-in location settings. Remind them it’s not safe to post your whereabouts.
Finally, there are a variety of online resources that I find helpful, including netsmartz.org. This site features interviews with young people talking about online safety. It’s nice for kids to hear from peers on the subject, too. Learning in this area is definitely ongoing, and new sites are emerging constantly. I’d love to hear your ideas on this topic as well!