I was recently asked if I had any advice that I could offer to parents raising children in the age of social media. And although it’s always a compliment to be asked for an opinion, I couldn’t imagine much in the way of concrete advice that I could give that is not already out there – in abundance. Do you know that when you google ‘kids and social media’, it returns 381 million replies in less than 1 second. And if you read through even the top 10, you quickly realize that much of the advice is already duplicated.
Also, I recognize that my parenting style is not necessarily the same as that of others. On top of which, my children are still works in progress and so I have no way of knowing how successful my parenting will be.
So having thought through all this, I realized that the only way that I could weigh in on this question is by sharing a few lessons that have helped me when talking to my kids about SM (some of which I am sure are somewhere within the 381 million suggestions out there already). These are apart from all of the well-studied and documented safety rules that I agree every child should be taught from the time they are old enough to type.
It’s Not Their Fault
I had to learn not to get angry at my kids for the resentment I felt for all of the added complications that social media brings to child rearing – like somehow this new reality was their fault. Starting off conversations with ‘This is all crap, why do you use any of this stuff’ is a surprisingly ineffective way to opening up dialogue.
Don’t Blame SM for All the Changes
I found that I would often blame SM for taking up the time that my children would surely otherwise be engaged in meaningful, philanthropic endeavours. But the truth is, kids change as they grow and their peers become more important. So, if my daughter wasn’t spending her time snapchatting with her friends, chances are good that she would be spending that time hanging out at the mall chatting with her friends (as I did at that age). SM wasn’t responsible for her giving up many past hobbies – puberty was.
Make It Real
Nothing makes my kids eyes glaze over faster than quoting from latest media study of ‘should/should nots’. I have found that using the dinner table to discuss real world scenarios much more interesting and engaging for all concerned. When they were younger we tried to keep it age appropriate but really not much is off limits. If a child hurt themselves over on-line bullying we would talk about that… How that child must have felt… What they would do in similar circumstances… How self-esteem can be affected by the images/comments they see online. We try to also bring up lots of examples of when Adults run into trouble using SM to show that this topic is in no way about ‘stupid’ kids but rather a universal learning curve. We try to use a variety of different stories, from the heartbreaking to the absurd. Yes, Ashley Madison hit our dinner table when it hit the news, as a great way to discuss the false security surrounding internet data (and of course that one got us into other discussions which had nothing to do with SM).
I recently had a conversation with my daughter about the truly despicable (in my opinion) website Ask.fm which is a bit of teen precursor to the equally toxic Tinder. She has used Ask.fm, not Tinder, for which she is way too young. However, as she is already well aware of Tinder, there was no ignoring some discussion about it.
In talking about Tinder I was brutally honest about the main purpose of the app. It’s for hook-ups (insert your own language here) not necessarily finding long term love. So why, I asked her, did she think it was so popular among young women? She said that she thought most girls assume that they are special and will only meet nice guys……. and that’s when it hit me. Like most parents, we have taught my daughter that she is special. And she is incredibly special to us and will be, I know, to many people, but not to everyone. It’s that last part we forgot to mention.
I had spent a lot of time teaching my children about predators online. But the implication here is still – ‘you are special and there are crazies out there who will want to get to hold of you’. We had never, however, taught them that not everyone on line is a crazy – there are also a lot of self-centered people out there looking out for their own needs and won’t necessarily consider yours because honestly – you just aren’t that special to them. They aren’t doing anything illegal or obviously creepy. They just might not value you as we do. And in the world of SM, where everything is amplified and instantaneous and hook-ups abound, I want my daughter to at least be aware of this when she makes her choices.
Agree to Disagree
If it is not an absolute point of danger, I have learned to agree to disagree on many points. Case in point the ‘bikini shot selfies’. I know it might seem incongruous, given that I am writing a blog here. But I am actually a very private person. I didn’t even have a Facebook account until my book came out. So, I had to recognize that I am a very different animal than my daughter. When I am mortified at seeing a bikini shot selfie she is truly amazed. I have written about this phenomena in another post “The Cleavage Conundrum” so I won’t repeat everything here. The point is, that I while I understand what it is like to be young (been there), I will probably never truly understand my daughter’s connection to SM and sometimes I will just have to trust her and accept this new reality.
So this is a hard one for me – balancing the responsibility of monitoring my kids on-line activity with the reality of not really wanting to be privy to their every private conversation or thought. I understand the dangers of the internet. I read the stories of the parent who saved their child from a predator because they constantly monitored their child online. I understand the more you monitor the safer your child will be. But this is an incredibly overwhelming job and one that I can’t always reconcile within myself. I mean, I don’t listen at their doors when they talk on the phone. I don’t search for hidden diaries. And I don’t hide behind bushes monitoring their activity when they are out in the world. When I think back about some of the conversations I had as a kid with my friends, I would have buried myself alive if my parents had overheard. Plus – it is impossible to monitor everything your child does online (hello Snapchat). When they are very young of course, but as they grow it becomes a herculean feat what with duplicate accounts, disappearing messages and whatever else they invent in the next few years. If your kid doesn’t want you to see something on line, the chances are good you are not going to see it. So FOR ME, I have realized that I just won’t catch it all, some things are going to fall through the cracks and I had to learn to accept and forgive this fact before I drove myself crazy. And I remind myself constantly that my kids are pretty smart and pretty decent. And at some point I have to trust and hope that they will come to me if they experience problems online, just as I hope and pray they come to me if they have problems in the real world.
Keep the Wine Glass and Tissues Ready
I read an article that talked about the importance of Parents asking their kids what sites they were on, and at the bottom there was a funny comment from this boy who said that his Father was forever asking him about the online game that he was playing. But after about the 10th time his dad asked this same question, he realized that his father wasn’t actually listening to his answer so he just stopped answering. I’m just throwing this in because it stood out to me and because, as you may know, I never write anything about anything without mentioning how important I think communication is. I honestly don’t know exactly how to raise a child in the age of Social Media (or any other age) in order to guarantee a perfect outcome. My own kids are so completely different from one another that we have experienced epic failures trying to apply the rules for one to the other. And the way my daughter reacts to her world is completely different from that of my son. My kids are going to screw up. I am going to screw up. The only constant I know, the time I feel most secure and in control, is when I am talking to my kids and listening to what they have to say. Physically, it is comforting because they are actually with me and mentally, my imagination is often worse than the reality I face when actually discussing things. So this is about the only piece of advice that I am absolutely confident in giving because it is a no lose situation no matter what your parenting style – talk, ask questions, listen, and give lots of hugs!