Parents seem to be split two ways regarding children and social media: on the one hand are the parents who refuse to let their children touch smartphones and keep them tucked away from Facebook, and on the other hand are the parents who either don’t know or don’t care what their kids do online.
The fact of the matter is that social media is here to stay, and preventing kids from interacting with online social sites, from Club Penguin to YouTube, is depriving them of three key parts of their education. The first part is learning how to make and maintain friendships both in person and online; the second part is how to navigate and use technology (and the associated increased literacy skills that come from online communication); the third is how to manage a social media world that is simultaneously both public and private.
This last fact is the one you’ll have to teach your children yourself. Kids will easily pick up friendships and learn how to create profiles and update statuses, but they’re still too young to understand that social media is not a private conversation, and that anything they post online can spread out far past their initial recipient.
Start by talking to children about social media bullying, and how even something meant as a joke has the potential to spread and hurt people. If your child is old enough, talk about bullying-related suicides such as Rebecca Ann Sedwick’s story. Ask your children to describe how it feels when other people make fun of them, and then talk about how to prevent cyber bullying both by refusing to post mean statuses as well as refusing to comment on or interact with friends’ bullying statuses.
Then, begin the conversation about privacy. Explain that sites like Facebook regularly change their algorithms to put formerly-private conversations in the public sphere; Facebook Graph Search, for example, meant that many comments were private on September 29 but suddenly public when Graph Search launched September 30 — and users were not individually warned.
Make it a game: see how many of their own profiles and posts children can locate from a random library computer, without logging into any of their accounts. Then take the kids home and challenge them to update their privacy settings so those posts are no longer publicly visible. Empower your kids to learn how to manipulate Facebook, YouTube, and Google Plus privacy settings, even if that means they can hide parts of their profiles from you.
Lastly, explain to kids that anything that goes online lasts forever. 29 Prime recently shared an article about how Google Plus automatically chooses the first image you upload as the image to display when people search your name. Sometimes you don’t realize the way your choices affect how you are perceived on the internet, and that that silly picture you uploaded as a test becomes the single image that represents you.
Once you’ve done that, relax and let your kids explore social media. They’ll teach themselves as much by doing as you will by lecturing. As long as they’re generally behaving like good people and not posting items that are hurtful or vulgar, they’ll be fine, and will be teaching themselves technology and communication skills that will last a lifetime.