Being Social with Kids in the 21st Century: Tech Decisions, Tips, and Questions to Consider
Being social in the 21st century has taken on a whole new meaning now that we have ways to interact that take place online, via text, through video games, and more.
Smart phones, tablets, video game consoles, PCs, and more have given young children and teens access to content they’d never see otherwise- right in the palms of their hands. Whether it’s the content that is the issue, or it’s the possibility for scamming, bullying, traficking, or the loss of time in mindless scrolling most parents are in need of some help in how to manage what their kids can access, and how. And mostly how to keep them safe. Our friends at Kidas, creators of the online gaming software ProtectMe, have sponsored this article and below share their tips for helping to keep kids safe online.
The biggest stress of 2020 for Marcia W. wasn’t Covid-19. It was managing her 11-year-old daughter on social media. Like countless other parents during this unprecedented time, Marcia gave in when her daughter asked her if she could join social media to stay connected with her classmates. “I felt so bad that they were out of school and not seeing their friends,” says Marcia of Conshohocken. “And social media was how kids were communicating and staying in touch.” TikTok was the social media account of choice for Marcia’s then fifth-grader. The app seemed innocent enough to the mom of three. She had even seen her friends posting the viral dances popular on the platform re-shared on her own Facebook account. “I quickly learned that there is so much more on that platform that my child was being exposed to other than just learning cute dances,” she says. Two years later, her daughter constantly wants to be on the phone, mostly just passively scrolling through the endless content on TikTok. “It has become a complete nightmare for my family,” says Marcia W. “We’re constantly fighting over screen time and trying to manage what she is seeing. If I could do it all over again I wouldn’t give her access to a phone or social media until high school.”
Deciding When to Give a Phone and What Apps They Can Have
Waiting until high school for a smartphone isn’t an option most kids are going for these days. The average age kids are getting some type of mobile device seems to be twelve or when they’re entering sixth grade. Once kids have a phone, it’s standard that the next ask will be for some type of social media to interact with their friends. Basic texting doesn’t suffice for today’s tweens and teens. Parents like Marcia W., however, warn that the moment a child is signed up for social media, it’s a Pandora’s Box that’s impossible to completely shut.
Marcella C. of Wayne has held off—so far—in getting a phone for her 12-year-old daughter, even though the majority of her sixth grade classmates have one. Many at her daughter’s private Main Line school had phones by fourth grade. Screens, however, aren’t totally banned in her household. Her daughter does have an iPad—that she knows is monitored by her parents—that is used for some gaming and the occasional TikTok dance post. How does Marcella C. describe parenting in this digital age? “It’s a tightrope balancing act without a net, while juggling an elephant, and a puppy running between your feet,” she jokes.
Social Media Rulebook
It’s safe to assume that parents of tweens and teens can relate to the analogy. There isn’t a rulebook to follow on specific guidelines for things like what is or isn’t too much screen time or what is or isn’t the right age to introduce your children to social media. Considering, as parents, that our own social media accounts are flooded with the facts of the dangers lurking behind social media for children like online bullying, access to inappropriate content, predators, sextortion, easy access to illegal drugs, and more, it’s no wonder parents aren’t blindfolding their children throughout their tween and teen years.
Dr. Susan Anderer, a licensed psychologist and certified school psychologist, practicing in Bryn Mawr advises the parents of her patients to approach the concept of their child using social media with trust. “The most important thing in a parent child relationship is trust and parents need to be able to develop that sense of trust with their kids,” says Dr. Anderer. “Trust and open communication is really imperative, not just for social media, but for behavior and drinking and all types of experimentation that happens in those teenage years. The foundation is that children know that they can always come to their parents with questions and concerns. I think a lot of parents think it’s their job to become the police and I think that undermines their ability to really be effective parents.”
How to Manage Social Media with Your Tweens and Teens
1. Be educated
Before you sign your child up up for a social media account, make sure you know the ins and outs of the app they will be using. Learn about parental controls (if there are any) and privacy settings. A great resource for parents are websites like shapethesky.com that are dedicated to helping parents keep kids safe online. This particular website gives an in-depth overview of each of the social media accounts popular with tweens and teens including Instagram and SnapChat. It also provides an overall review of the app and specific safety tips and recommendations for parents to properly monitor the child’s use.
2. Make sure your child is well versed on proper Netiquette
Netiquette is the correct or acceptable way of communicating on the internet and it’s imperative that your child knows the basics before they go online. In the most simplistic terms it’s how you would expect them to act in the real world with their friends. Rules should include: no bullying; no inappropriate language; no gossiping or spreading rumors about others; don’t engage in conversations with people you don’t know; never share personal information, like passwords or your address, with people online; and being aware that nothing you post online ever truly goes away even if you delete it.
3. Beware of Online Predators
Parents must make children aware of online predators and how they can make social media a very dangerous place. “I think talking to children about online predators is very much like talking to them about personal safety in the real world,” says Dr. Anderer. “If something feels wrong, we really want kids to tune into what we call their ‘spidey sense,’ the sense that something isn’t quite right and to feel comfortable coming to their parents to discuss it.” Some parents rely on apps like the Bark or Kaspersky Safe Kids to aid in monitoring their child’s online activity. The main feature of Bark, for example, is tracking conversations and content on a variety of social media platforms and alerting parents to concerning interactions.
4. Be aware of Psychological Safety
As much as parents are concerned with their children’s physical safety involving social media use, they also have to be concerned with their psychological safety. Anxiety and depression, especially among teenage girls, has been linked to excessive time spent on social media. “Social media, with the use of pictures and filters, sets a very unrealistic expectation for looks and standards in our society,” says Matt Dale, executive director of Embark Behavioral Health in Berwyn. “This creates an unobtainable standard that children are striving for and it’s setting them up to fail.” Social media provides a highlight reel of someone’s life, not a log of their daily struggles. “Teens are very impressionable,” continues Dale. “We have to make sure teens realize that social media accounts are peoples’ best attempt at giving you their ideal versions of themselves.”
5. Set Up Enforceable Boundaries
Tweens and teens need to have a clear understanding of what the rules are in their household regarding screen time. Help your child develop healthy habits when it comes to technology. “We tell families to set reasonable limits on the amount of time that teens can be on social media,” says Dale. “We encourage simple rules in the house like: no devices at dinner; bedtime routines that include completely disconnecting from electronic media say an hour or two before bed; keeping phones and tablets out of the bedroom, etc.” Once the rules are in place be consistent in enforcing them. It also helps if parents model the same guidelines. If you don’t want your child to have their face constantly buried in a screen, make sure yours isn’t either. Consider drafting an online safety/social media use contract, that includes daily screen time use, or download a contract on sites like safekids.com. Children should know that breaking the rules will result in pre-determined punishments. “Like driving, social media use is a privilege, not a right,” says Dale. “So there are rules that come along with that privilege.” Dale believes in monitoring your children’s social media accounts, but to be honest about doing it. “Parents should be very open about it if they are monitoring their child’s accounts,” he says. “They shouldn’t be doing it in a way that’s sneaky or deceitful.”
Guidance for Gamers
Even if your child isn’t on social media and just “gaming” you still have to apply some of the same rules and concerns to their online activity. Kidas is a Philadelphia-based company providing the only child protection software specifically built for PC games. CEO Ron Kerbs launched the company back in 2019 unknowingly a year before children and teens would be spending an exorbitant amount of time online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gaming, like social media, became a way for kids to connect. Online bullying (sometimes even among friends your child knows) and grooming from online predators are prevalent threats on chat threads within games. “Kidas monitors in game communication,” says Jenna Greenspoon, Director of Parenting at Kidas. “We only monitor in game communication or apps that are used while gaming.” Some of the things they are monitoring include: hate speech, cyberbullying, racism, sexual content, flaming, self harm comments, and the like. “Parents get a report of what type of threat their child was exposed to, if any, over the course of their gaming week,” says Greenspoon. “We also give recommendations for parents on how to handle the threat their child was exposed to so the parent can take actionable steps against the threat.” The reports provided by Kidas are age-based and focus on what is appropriate for that age.
Technology and youth mental health: Questions for families to consider
- How much time is my child spending online? Is it taking away from healthy offline activities, such as exercising, seeing friends, reading, and sleeping?
- Are there healthy limits I can set on my child’s use of technology, such as limiting screen time to specific times of the day or week, or limiting certain kinds of uses?
- Am I aware of what devices and content my child has access to?
- Is my child getting something meaningful and constructive out of content they are looking at, creating, or sharing? How do I know?
- Are there healthier ways my child could engage online? (Examples: Finding meal recipes, researching options for a family outing, video chatting with a relative, etc.)
- Is being online riskier for my child than for some other children? For example, does my child have a mental health condition that might make them react more strongly to certain kinds of stressful or emotional content?
- How does my child feel about the time they spend online?
- Is my child engaging because they want to, or because they feel like they have to?
- How can I create space for open conversations with my child about their experiences online? How do I feel about my own use of technology? Can I be a better role model for my child?
—Source: Protecting Youth Mental Health: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory 2021
Additional Resources for Families
Family Resource Center (Child Mind Institute)
NetSmartz (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Parents’ Ultimate Guides (Common Sense Media)
The FBI’s Safe Online Surfing (SOS) program (teaches students in grades 3 to 8 how to navigate the web safely)
Photo by Jessica Lewis Creative: https://www.pexels.com/photo/children-lying-on-sofa-and-using-gadgets-4200824/