When my daughters were two and four years old, we bought an iPad to keep at home. It wasn't long before they both knew how to use it better than I did. Now my oldest daughter is eight, and she's already using it to send text messages to her friends, video chat with her grandparents, and play some interactive online games. And for the first time as a parent, I have to think about how to keep her safe on a platform I don't really understand. I know it has to be done, but where to start?
“It's our responsibility as parents to educate our children as digital citizens," says Janell Burley Hofmann, author of iRules: What Every Tech-Healthy Family Needs to Know About Selfies, Sexting, Gaming and Growing Up. “It's also our job to protect them and teach our values, which may vary from family to family."
Here are some tools and tips from Hofmann and other social media experts on how to make these conversations go smoothly.
Dos and Don'ts for Discussing Social Media Safety
- DO foster a culture of conversation in your family from the beginning.
- DON'T make social media a forbidden fruit.
- DO keep the conversation age-appropriate.
- DO make your teen the expert.
- DON'T belittle your teen's interest in social media.
- DO talk about your own social media use, if applicable.
- DO be transparent about monitoring.
- DO remind your kids that the Internet is not private.
For School-Age Children
Don't make things forbidden. “When you tell a young child 'Don't touch the stove,' what's the first thing they want to do? Touch the stove," says Josh Ochs, whose website, Safe, Smart & Social, trains children, teens, and parents in online safety and social media usage. “So try a different approach: 'Hey, let's learn how to cook today.' In other words, show your kids how to use social media in fun and safe ways."
Start small. For younger children, keep rules simple. Hofmann suggests strategies such as an “Ask Mom and Dad first" rule or one stating “If we haven't played this game/used this app at our house, we can't do it away from home." As children get older and understand more of the issues, you can adapt your rules and discussions to their maturity level.
Don't give too much information. “Keeping it simple, not scary, is the key," Hoffman says. “We don't tell our very young children to wear their seat belts because they might fly through the windshield. We tell them it's safe, it's the rules, it's the way it is. And kids trust that!"
Make your teen the expert. “Parents' biggest issue right now is their fear that they can't keep up; they think they need to be experts," Ochs says. “Instead, ask your teen to teach you how to use different social media platforms. When kids feel like they're the experts, they let down a lot of their barriers." Hofmann agrees that this works especially well for potentially awkward issues like sexting. “Put the conversation in their court," she says. “Try saying something like 'Fill me in on sexting. Is it common? Is it exaggerated in statistics & the media?'"
Don't belittle your teen's interest. Even if the thought of Instagram leaves you cold and you think tweeting is for the birds, don't say so. According to Hofmann, “The more open and accepting we are of technology as adults, the less it is used in isolation or secretly, and the more control and understanding and ultimately success we can all have with it."
For All Ages
Talk about your own social media use. If you use platforms like Facebook or Twitter yourself, either for work or personally, share a little bit of that online life with your kids. This helps to facilitate a two-way conversation about online habits.
Be transparent about monitoring. It's a good idea to create a strategy to monitor your kids' social media use. That could include making sure they add you to their contact or “friends" lists and checking text and chat logs periodically. But don't keep the monitoring secret: Let your kids know that you're doing so and when.
Remind your kids that the Internet is not private. Information or photos shared on even the most locked-down social media profile is at risk of being exposed at some point. Discuss the concept of good judgment—tailoring the conversation to your children's ages—and discourage them from social media to bully or gossip about others. “Think twice, post once" is always a good policy.
A Culture of Conversation
As Hofmann points out, talking to your children about important safety topics is easier if the conversation is a regular part of your family life. “Talk about the little things from a very young age. Get used to asking questions and letting questions be asked of you," she says. “A family that is used to talking—even about minor things like who didn't want to sit with whom on the school bus today—is better suited to have more meaningful and productive conversations about the big stuff."