I wrote an article the other day entitled “Bullying and Social Media” that discussed the impact social media was having on our youth, and how many children are turning to suicide as a result of the pressure and pain they have endured due to bullying, specifically online bullying. That article raised more questions, questions that I think all parents wrestle with. Questions that I think don’t have an easy or clear-cut answer. Questions that I hope stimulated some conversations and thought, so we, as parents, can make mindful and thoughtful decisions about how to handle social media with our children and teens.
The first question I posed was, how do we, as parents, navigate social media with our children? How do we decide what to allow and what not to allow? I think this, like many of the questions in this article, and in parenting in general, does not have one clear cut answer. It is something each parental unit must decide for their family. I’ve seen many responsible parents handle this question in many different ways, to not allowing social media until the child is of a certain age, to not allowing it at all, to only allowing certain sites and not others, to allowing them on it with restrictions, to requiring the child to “follow” certain public figures that stimulate thought and social awareness. When deciding what to allow, I think a parent needs to ask themselves about the emotional maturity of the teen, about how they are handling issues like peer pressure and fitting in with peers. About how they are handling the responsibilities in their lives (their grades, their outside activities, doing chores, following rules at home and at school). The truth is, if any of these issues are needing some improvement, social media is likely to exacerbate whatever problems are already present. The youth may have you believe that if they were allowed to access social media, these things would improve, sort of a “reward” for turning things around. I caution you against yielding to this argument. A child who is emotionally immature or is not handling other parts of their lives well is very likely to get themselves into some sort of trouble if social media is added to the mix.
The second question I offered up was, if we do allow social media, how much do we monitor it? What about issues like “privacy” (a favorite word for my teen clients to use with their parents in session when discussing this issue)? I think this question is a little simpler. I strongly believe the answer to this is that we DO monitor them. I often use an analogy with my clients to help them understand this topic of the internet in terms we can relate to from our childhoods. Imagine someone calling you on the home phone as a teen and your mom answering on the kitchen phone (if you’re old like me, it would be the kind with a spiral cord that is connected to the wall). The person on the phone sounds like an older man. Would your mom simply hand you the phone and never ask a question? Of course not! If she handed you the phone, it would likely be after she asked who the caller was and felt satisfied that this was an appropriate relationship. When phones belonged to an entire family, there was much more natural screening that went on. Our families knew who was calling us because anyone could answer the phone at any time. But these days, with everyone having their own private phone and internet access, children are often given unlimited access to the world and all it has to offer, and the world is given unlimited and unfiltered access to them. This can cause an array of problems. When it comes to social media and bullying, it can mean months of bad treatment without anyone in the child’s family aware that it is even occurring. Obviously, this can be extremely damaging to a youth’s emotional and psychological health. So, I urge you, if you have decided to allow your child to have social media, please monitor them. Have their passwords, do not allow them to delete any content, check their accounts regularly, and know what is going on in their lives. And if you know of concerning behavior of a youth outside of your family, please let their parent know. This is critical in keeping our children safe. If we all band together to know what is going on in the lives of the youth in our community, maybe we can avert the next crisis. Maybe the next child or teen thinking of harming themselves can get help instead!