What happens when one of your kid's friends is doing something inappropriate with social media or the Internet? Having that "uncomfortable conversation" may not be fun, but looking out for each others' kids is good for all of us as parents.
A common refrain that I hear from parents that today’s kids “have no regard for privacy!” Their evidence? A teenager’s “rant” on Facebook. An inappropriate divulgence via Twitter. A photo that would be better deleted than shared.
I still remember walking home from 7th grade when a friend said she hated her parents. I had never dared to think something like that, let alone say it aloud. I rolled it around in my head. As I got to know her, I realized she had good reason to be deeply angry with her folks. But communicating her truth to me was private and profound. Now consider the same message, but this time, conveyed via social media. “I hate my parents” could easily be taken as light-hearted or a joke—or it could be much more serious than that.
The fact is that these two “social spaces” are vastly different. The issue is not that kids don’t have a sense of privacy, but instead a lack of understanding about how to manage each one of these terrains. Teaching kids how to manage these distinctions is tricky.
All of this centers around a strong set of values—which parents and other mentors, can model for kids. The new world of social media does mean we all get to ignore our values, but it does require us to help young people navigate how their ideas get filtered and shared through these new means of communication. For instance, you have a sense of when it’s OK to resolve an issue via e-mail, but you also understand when it’s best to have a face-to-face discussion. The issue for kids is no different at its core—it’s just the medium that’s different. The challenge for you lies in the nuances of each communication mechanism, be it Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. Stick to your core values. It is OK to emphasize things such as loyalty, but show your kids the difference between the the ways we communicate.
Take for example a situation where you are angry with a friend. You need to vent. You call another friend of yours and do just that. You unload all the details. You feel better. Yes, there’s a risk in this—the “venting” conversation might get back to the first friend. But imagine how different that would be if you instead vented about your friend on your blog or Tumblr—and she discovered the post 3 weeks later? The issue may actually have been resolved in person by now—but social media will “remember.” For all intents and purposes, it’s a permanent record—even though it feels ephemeral.
This is incredibly challenging for kids to understand. So what can you do?
- Set a social media policy for your family, what can be shared and not shared. Talk about it directly.
- Walk through hypothetical situations, using real friends and family. That way, your kids will understand it in the context of real empathy and real emotions.
- Have your kids look for and point out to you things that their peers are doing “wrong.” This will get them to cast a critical eye on social interactions, using real examples. It gives you a good sense of their judgement.
- If your child does complain about you on social media, DON’T return the favor. Criticizing your child in your own social media posts is always the wrong way to go. Don’t shoot your child’s laptop. Do explain why airing this kind of grievances publicly is NOT a good way to resolve family conflict. Look for alternate ways to re-establish trust and communication.
In the comments, please share your experiences with kids and privacy. How do you teach your kids, or your students to understand what to share, where to share and how to communicate their thoughts and feelings with regard to their own privacy as well as privacy for others.
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Many parents ask me—should I spy on my kids or is that an invasion of privacy? Apps like “My Mobile Watch Dog” and “TeenSafe” give parents the power to read all their kids’ texts. But then what? I tell parents: Mentoring is more powerful than monitoring.
It helps to understand your own goals before you take action. Has there been an incident that spurred a spying strategy? Or is it a general fear about what your child could be doing—because you don’t know about it?
In addition to looking at your goals, set a plan before you start. Think about what your response will be if or when you encounter:
- Bad (or inappropriate) language;
- Negative talk about other kids;
- Negative talk about adults or teachers;
- Negative talk about you or other parents.
- Inappropriate pictures.
When you put all these together, it’s easy to see why this is such a source of stress for families. Do you wish there was a course on this? After years of research and talking with families, I’ve created:
This is an online class this summer for families who are getting their child a phone this year, or are in the first year with a phone and want to decrease conflicts and improve family communication about the phone.
This course will cover:
- Assessing your family’s current digital situation
- Planning and organizing your physical space at home to maximize positive outcomes
- Common digital citizenship challenges for new smartphone users
- What social skills kids need to be successful with their phones and more.
- Planning for boundaries around when your child will have access to the device
Mentoring vs. Monitoring: Be honest with yourself about your goals
The new digital world that our kids inhabit leaves parents feeling like they have less and less control to do the work of parenting. A natural inclination is to take some control back. Impose rules on device use, or monitor kids’ activities. After all, how can we have influence over them if we feel like they are isolated from us?
While this can be effective (and maybe even necessary), let me make a brief case for mentoring rather than monitoring.
- First of all, if you are covert about your spying, you could lose the opportunity for mentoring. You may feel that it’s your right as a parent, but your child will see it as a breach of trust. When this happens, your child may “close off” or feel that she has to be sneaky now. In other words, you could actually do more damage by spying, and have the opposite effect of what you intend.
- Plus, your kids may already be on to you. They are clever, and I’ve seen a few kids go to great lengths to evade covert spying. For instance, keeping and managing two Instagram accounts—a “family-friendly” one and another “real” account, using a fake/code name. You can usually tell which one is real by their engagements with other kids, etc.
- Speaking of other kids, spying on your child’s communication means that you are reading other kids’ communications, too. There are a lot of issues around that, from invasion of privacy to assumed responsibility. Do you tell the other parent up front, or wait until an issue arises? What if another parent is reading your child’s communications to their kid? Would you want them to call you about your child’s communication? To my point about goals, it really helps think these things through in advance.
- You may never see your kids’ friends the same way if you are reading their texts. Or your own. Are you ready?
What if you decide to spy?
If you do spy—and there are some situations, including new stages of experience (i.e. first time users) that may warrant this—then here are a few tips:
- Be honest. Tell your kids up front that you are going to be watching, and why you feel you need to do this. Demonstrate to them how your relationship will be better and more open because of this. After all, you are being honest with them—not covert.
- Show how it will help. Tell your kids that you are going to help them understand how to communicate better. Socializing via text and social media is complicated, and you’ll help them navigate it. Assure them that they won’t lose their own style of communicating.
- Set a duration. Be clear that if they meet your expectations in how to communicate, that you will feel the need to check less frequently or you will stop completely unless you sense there is serious trouble and your child isn’t telling you.
- Create an alternative. Instead of spying, are you open to having them give you a tour of their social media accounts once a month?
- Raise a flag. Have your child point out to you when they get a message that’s not appropriate. Prompt them, if necessary. If they learn to do this on their own, not only can you use the opportunity to teach them, but you’ll also be building up your trust in your child as well.
What if you see something you don’t like?
Suppose you see something you don’t like. An inappropriate picture exchanged, mean or hurtful words about a classmate, or worse—an accusation or threat. What do you do?
- First, try not to over-react. You could be missing a lot of context by seeing this one infraction. I’m not saying not to take it seriously—just make sure you remain calm and think it through before reacting. You have to tread very carefully, and it helps to have a strategy.
- Ask, don’t accuse. You need more context to assess the situation and make good decisions. Ask some open-ended questions about what’s going on, rather than confronting your child directly.
- Assess and take action. How serious is the situation, and how urgent is it? For instance, if you have reason to believe your child is being bullied, in an abusive relationship, or getting threatening texts from a peer (or an adult), you need to act immediately. But if we are talking about the everyday social dramas of elementary, middle, and even high school, it is more helpful to be supportive and not overbearing.
- Teach “repair.” It’s ideal if the child can fix the issue on his/her own, and your mentoring can really help here. Teach your child that if a post or text message upsets them, it is better to calm down and speak to the person directly (if possible), or to seek help from a parent or other adult if the situation is too serious to handle on their own.
Building a strong, honest, and open relationship with your child is the best defense against the “digital issues” your family faces day to day. Protection apps like “Phone Sheriff” (and hundreds of other similar apps) are simply no match for your experience, and won’t help your child develop good judgment in communicating. Issues are an opportunity for learning—for you and your child!
PS: Getting Your Child a Phone? Are you ready? Are they ready? Join my Cell Phone Boot Camp to get ready to support them through this important transition. Would you like informative posts about raising kids in the digital in your inbox by the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World? Sign up here.
Perplexed parent: “My child wants to use tbh, Instagram, WhatsApp, Live.ly, Sarahah, Snapchat, Yellow, Kik, Musical.ly, Houseparty, Marco Polo, (insert latest, greatest app here). I’ve never heard of half of these, don’t know what they do, and am not even sure what my yes or no means! Guidance, please?”
Ask. Invite your child to tell you everything he or she knows about the app and why she wants the app. (besides because “all my friends are on it.”) What is the attraction to her? How will he use it? Is it a social app? A game? How much personal information is shared? How do people act in that space? How does it make people feel? Make it a prerequisite to download or purchase that you and she will sit down and interact with it – together.
Consult. Ask a local “expert” for advice. This can be anyone– an older kid, the babysitter, your college-aged niece. Find a reliable young person a few years older than your own kid to give you the down low.
Investigate. Talk to someone like me. Or see what the reviewers at Common Sense Media have to say. Or ask the parents in your parenting Facebook group.
2. GO DEEPER
If you want to know more about what people do on Instagram, you can go to the to Instagram #explore and look around.
Try searching for monkeys, kittens, Justin Bieber or try something naughtier–what might your 12 year old search for? Yes, I know kids are supposed to be 13 to use most social apps, including Instagram, but many kids have Instagram accounts before this birthday!
Know what’s out there, but don’t assume that just because there is instaporn that your child knows this or wants to see it. Just because inappropriate content can be found on an app, doesn’t mean that is what your son or daughter is looking for…but do remember that user generated content is not rated the way movies would be…and that most of these companies are WAY to small to adequately screen content.
And of course, you can always download the app and try it yourself. As a general rule, social apps that skew toward anonymity (like Sarahah, Ask.fm, After School, and some others) seem most likely to harbor mean behaviors. Human beings don’t seem to do their best when anonymously responding to others.
If you are thinking about giving the thumbs up after doing research, here are some questions to discuss with your child:
- Ask him to show you an example of someone’s post in the app that he doesn’t think is appropriate and one he thinks is smart and cool.
- Work with your child to generate a list of do’s and don’ts for the new app.
- For a social app, what is the criteria for connecting with someone?
- What is the potential for drama? Can they give an example of how to avoid drama?
- How much time will she be allowed to spend using the app, and under what conditions?
- What privacy settings will he use?
- Is having her password a condition of use? Being “friends” or “following” her?
- How will he decide what can be shared or not shared?
- Does she know how to avoid “geotagging” herself, leaving a trail of data?
Wading in, going deeper and then having an honest discussion with your child is a great way to keep up with the apps she’s using and make sure what she downloads is safe and fun. If the app seems to be dialing up stress, taking away from other pursuits (sleep, homework, family time) or is having any other negative effects, then it is time to rethink.