xanpearson

Navigating Children through Social Networking

In Facebook, Parenting, Social Media, Twitter on June 15, 2010 at 10:46 pm

I get a lot of questions from parents about whether it’s wise to allow children to have a social networking account.  I completely understand their concern.  We constantly see stories in the news about bullying, privacy flaws, pedophiles, and stalkers associated with social media.  However, social networking is here to stay. It’s an inherent part of the millennial generation’s culture and communication. According to Pew Research, 73% of American teens now use social networking sites (up from 55% in 2006).

We teach children from a very young age social etiquette: say “please”, “thank you”; as well as societal safety: “don’t talk to strangers”, “look both ways before crossing the street.”  For the same reason, we also need to teach children how to use social media responsibly and safely.  However, parents shouldn’t just have a brief discussion with children about the dangers in social networking, let them set up an account, and walk away.  I liken it to teaching a child how to drive a car.  You wouldn’t let your child drive your car on the highway without supervision after a short talk about driving.   There’s a reason young drivers need permits and a probationary period of supervision behind the wheel before they get the freedom of a driver’s license.  There are many times while driving that the student needs to use judgment to figure out how to avoid danger, and it isn’t always black and white.

The same can be said of social networking. Many parents believe viewing a child’s social media account as a violation of privacy.  In a previous post, Social Media Privacy is an Oxymoron, I discussed the fact that any information posted online has the potential to become public.   The “information superhighway” is fast, filled with potholes, and can be dangerous if used negligently.   We need to teach children how to use social networking responsibly.  Consider it Driver’s Ed for Social Media.  Here are three steps to teaching your child how to navigate social networking.

Instruction. The first thing to teach a child about social media is that anything posted online may become public. Talk to your children about the dangers of sharing too much information and to use discretion when posting pictures or writing anything.  Discuss “Personal Brand” (an often used term in social media referring to how someone is perceived by others).  Parents, college admissions directors, human resource managers, school administrators, and police all monitor social networking accounts.  Let children know that anything they write, whether a “private message”, inbox, chat or direct message, can be printed or copied, pasted and shared with others. If they wouldn’t say it in front of an auditorium full of their classmates, teachers or parents, they shouldn’t write it.  Decide which type of social network would be best for your child.  This largely depends upon what is popular among their personal social circle and the child’s age.

The Learner’s Permit: Create your child’s account with him.  Together, walk through the privacy policy and settings.  The best way to supervise and teach your child how to appropriately use social networking will largely depend upon the child’s age and maturity.  Obviously, younger users will need more guidance and supervision.  Depending on you and your child’s comfort level, there are two effective ways to monitor social networking use during this period.  The first is to explain to him that for a while, you need to always have the password, and may log on at any time to check his page.  The second is to agree to let the child set his own password, but he will need to open  and show it to you at any time.  Most children will be so happy to have an account, they will readily agree to your terms.  If they balk at this, explain that if they are posting anything you shouldn’t see, then it shouldn’t be shared on an online social networking site.  (A third alternative many parents use is to connect with or “friend” the child’s account through their own social account.  In my opinion, this is the least effective for new users as privacy settings can allow information to be filtered, which defeats the purpose as a learning tool).

Children and teens will make mistakes. They will post something you would consider inappropriate.  They will “friend” someone they don’t know.  They will share “TMI” (“too much information” for you SMS acronym-challenged folks).  This is all part of the learning process and has less potential to escalate into something embarrassing or dangerous if first experienced under a parent’s guidance.  Over time, you will notice your child using more discretion and will feel comfortable with less monitoring.  At that point, let your child change the password and/or lessen the frequency of periodic checks.

One warning:  As parents, it is often easy to get too involved out of concern.  Parents need to respect a child’s relationships. We have all seen “helicopter parents”: the parents who hover and direct their child’s social circle, interfere with athletics, academics, etc.  Don’t abuse this opportunity. Never post on your child’s site and, unless a dangerous situation arises, don’t get involved with your child’s friends’ accounts.  Use information you may see about friends as learning tools for discussion with your child.    This shouldn’t be used as a way to “spy” on your child and his/her friends, but to teach your child how to make good choices and use social media responsibly. If you see something inappropriate, use it as an opportunity to discuss it with your child.  Very often children will take it upon themselves to talk to a friend about private issues of concern.

Getting A License: You can’t and shouldn’t monitor a child’s social networking site forever.  When this freedom should come is different for everyone.  At some point you will feel comfortable that your child understands and is using social networking safely and responsibly.  I have seen many instances when the child voluntarily starts connecting with parents and other relatives within the social network. Many young adults have said that they use social networks to stay in touch with family while at college.  And many teens find it a great way to “self-monitor” (no one wants Grandma to read something embarrassing!).

This is a technology-driven generation and social media is a critical part of our personal and business culture.  Eventually, your child will engage in it with or without your guidance and/or permission.   Teaching children how to use it effectively and responsibly early on is essential.

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  1. Amazing article! Exactly what parents should be doing with their children and socail networks.

  2. Thanks Will! I find that so many parents are overwhelmed and not sure how to approach social networking with their children. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  3. I have a 13- and 16-year-old, and find this advice to be helpful. Plus, it reconfirms my commitment to be the “mean” mom who harps on them about the illusion of privacy they believe they have. As my older boy just got his driving license today, I especially like the analogy you drew here. Thanks.

  4. Hi Xan,
    You called it! This topic made headlines earlier this month with the Wall Street Journal interview of Holman W. Jenkins Jr., CEO of Google, who “predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.” (here’s the link to the full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704901104575423294099527212.html)

    Alternatively, parents can guide their children through social media as you suggest, and maybe it would not be a bad idea to consider ushering in Social Media Skills as grade school course, along the lines of driver’s education?

    • I hadn’t seen that article, so thank you for sharing it. The damage that can be done is significant, and offering a course in school is a great idea! Love it! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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