Photo: Haley Overland via Instagram
As a parent of two kids, ages 9 and 11, who also works in social media, I get a lot of desperate questions from parents freaking out about their kids venturing online. Much of their fear has to do with all the stories we hear about the risks of social media. While yes, it can be scary, there are ways to navigate the terrain safely, productively — and without (too much) anxiety. Here’s what I’ve learned.
1. Start them young Parents often look at me in shock and horror when I give this advice. But social media is a fact of life, whether you’re for or against it, and kids need to be raised to succeed in the virtual world, too—they can’t be left to navigate it on their own. The message that the consequences of what you do on social media are real needs to be taught early.
As soon as your child becomes interested in smartphones or cameras, you can introduce them to photo etiquette. I let my kids know early on, “No naked bums in photos!” And I’ve always tried to model respect for privacy by asking permission before I take their picture, then showing them the photo I’ve taken, asking for their approval, and letting them know who is going to see it if we all agree to post it.
Then, have conversations about the things you post or see on social media so that it’s all very natural for them by the time they have their own accounts. For our family, this happened when my oldest hit grade 5 — that seems to be when the kids at my children’s school are doing much of their extracurricular communication on Instagram and Snapchat. Of course, they follow their friends, but I’ve also encouraged them to follow positive and educational feeds.
2. Know the basics The way you parent on social media doesn’t need to be much different than the way you parent IRL. Much to my own mother’s chagrin, I’m relatively laid-back. So, I have my kids’ passwords, but I don’t spy on their private messages — they know to be mindful, that nothing they write online is truly private. I follow their accounts and try to see everything that they post, but mostly so I can show my support by “liking” it all. We’ve had so much conversation around social media, that they’re happy their accounts have to be set to private (meaning only those they approve can see their posts). They voluntarily come to me whenever they need to approve a follow request or are remotely unsure of the propriety of something they want to publish (a Sailor Moon video clip, for example, that might appear violent).
3. Use the platforms The unknown is always scarier than the known. So, alleviate your anxiety and educate yourself by getting that Snapchat account — it’s the platform our little Gen Zer’s are most fond of (neck-and-neck with Instagram). My kids and I often discuss how people tend to portray themselves in the best light, and the image or “brand” they’re creating (whether they like it or not).
4. Model healthy behaviour I used to share tons of photos of myself and the kids. But, now I only post the occasional image of us (my dog has been getting a lot of airtime!). I realized I was getting too sucked in and it was affecting my self-esteem and ability to be fully present. Social media and smartphone technology in general is addictive— a major job hazard for those in my role—and it can have real-life effects.
Now I’ve taken a step back and some strict precautions, like timing myself, using mental-health-saving platform features (like muting and Twitter lists), and not posting so much personal stuff. I’m hyper-aware of the insecurity, dependence and narcissism these platforms breed. And you can bet I’m teaching my kids to be aware of this and to exercise self-control.
I’ve cautioned my kids against posting selfies, for example, because they don’t need the stress of getting the perfect, most gorgeous shot of themselves, or seeing if this or that person “liked” it. Plus, I don’t want them giving so much of themselves away, submitting their images and experiences to the judgment, gaze and power of others. If you get a new haircut? Fine, I tell them. But, too much self-exposure can be stressful — and potentially very dangerous for their mental health.
5. Repeat this mantra: What are you looking for? It’s easy to sit there mindlessly scrolling. When I notice my kids, or find myself, doing this, the mantra is this: “What are you looking for?” As with any potentially addictive behaviour, whatever we’re looking for just isn’t there. Instead, maybe it’s in some good cuddle time with Mom or Dad, a little more sleep, a walk, or a get together with friends. It’s a good opportunity to discuss what their needs really are.
6. Have fun Social media should be enjoyable and educational, and it can be a great way for kids to learn to communicate with others. When my son plays “emoji wars” with me in Instagram Direct Messages, I’m in heaven! I have full access to their accounts, but they know I trust them. And there’s power for all of us in that.