Social media. Sharing. Friending. Following. Trending. We hear these words and phrases on an almost daily basis but what do they really mean? Social media is simply a phrase used to describe websites or applications for mobile devices that allow us to connect and share with other people across the world in different ways via the Internet. The most popular and recognizable of these are Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Each of these services allows you to create an account and then see the information of other people who also use the service. Facebook is a personal online bulletin board that allows you post messages, pictures, videos, and links to other websites. Twitter allows each user to post a message under 140 characters long. Instagram is an online photo album that encourages other users to view and comment on your pictures.
Many of us have seen the not-so-accurate tale of Facebook’s origins in the award winning film, The Social Network. Aaron Sorkin’s snappy dialogue and loose reconstruction of how Mark Zuckerberg’s genius idea became a billion dollar business seems to theorize that connecting with people online is causing us alienate people in real life (or,”IRL” in web-speak). In my opinion, that view has always seemed a little reactionary but that doesn’t mean that our online lives aren’t changing the way we relate to people every day. Most importantly, social media is starting to affect the way we parent as kids are starting their online lives at a younger age.
Most social network sites and apps require children to be 13 years of age to utilize their services. Of course, the mechanism for finding this out is simply asking new users to enter their birthdate when they register. It doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to realize that many, many young people fabricate their birthdate to meet the age requirement. In addition to that, most social media is created with adult users in mind. Minors are a bit of an afterthought and so there is often objectionable content that is easy to find. So how do parents cope with and help their child navigate this relatively new and ever-changing online landscape? After doing a bit of research for our recent Share It Safely : Social Media for Parents and Tweens program here at the library, I have a few ideas:
- Lose the attitude: Most of us do not like change. But like it or not, things are changing. Social media is here to stay. Many jobs and careers require people to have some fluency with social media for professional purposes and this will be even more true for the next generation of workers. Kids will actually need the skills they learn by making YouTube videos or editing and posting photos to Instagram. With that in mind, parents can stop asking their kids “why?” about wanting social media accounts and start focusing on “when” and “how”.
- Stay engaged: It is impossible to know everything about social media as things are changing from day to day. And beauty of the Internet is that you don’t have to know everything! You just have to be able to research new things you hear about. And the key to hearing about new things is staying engaged with the world. Read a parenting/technology blog like The Modern Parent blog (http://themodernparent.net/blog) or Cool Mom Tech (http://coolmomtech.com). Listen to a podcast like Reply All, a 20 minute talk show about how the Internet is changing our lives (http://gimletmedia.com/show/reply-all). Check a technology news site like CNET.com (http://www.cnet.com/news/) to find about new tech. developments. Talk with other parents and share information. Once you make a habit of checking in with the tech world, you’ll find it easier to keep up with what your kids are doing online.
- Research, research, research: Once you hear about a new app or a new website that kids might use, learning how to effectively research it is key. Starting with a quick Google search. Check the dates on the search results and eliminate any that are over a year old. Reject any sites or articles that are sponsored by companies and stick to ones that seem to have the most objective content.
- Talk, talk, talk: The best way to let your kids know about your limits and expectations for social media usage is to talk to them! Start the conversation with them about how you want your family to behave online before they reach middle school. If you are having trouble thinking through your own expectations for your kids and how they will use technology, I highly recommend reading Janell Burley Hofmann’s book iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know about Selfies, Sexting, Gaming, and Growing up. Upon giving her 13 year old son an iPhone for Christmas, Hofmann wrote up a contract for him that helped her crystallize her vision for her family’s entrance into the tech world. The contract went viral on the Huffington Post and Hofmann’s subsequent book reflects her struggle as a parent to accept the difference technology is making in her children’s world.
- Try it out: We learn best by doing. If you learn about a new app or social media platform, sign up for it and try it out yourself! Or better yet, have your kids help you if they are familiar with it. Kids love to show off their knowledge, especially if it eclipses their parents’. Learn about the privacy settings, the parental controls available to you, and how your kids might benefit from it or not.
Social media may be a constantly changing phenomenon but it is one that is here to stay. Even though we now have to think about how are kids are interacting online, the principles of parenting remain the same. Our children’s online identity should be treated another public persona so the same good manners, basic decency, and common sense we expect outside our homes should prevail. If we stick to those ideals, we should be able to guide our kids into the future.