Thursday, June 12, 2014

Kids and Social Media: I Can Handle This (I think)

I wrote this post for the fine folks at WTOP (a kick-ass radio station in Washington, DC) last week but I thought I'd share it here, too. This is not a regular Mommyland-type post, it's a cross between a "real" blog post and the stream of consciousness bullshit you generally find here. Enjoy! 

A couple of years ago, I read that the crux of the problem with kids and emerging social technology, such as Twitter, is that children routinely use social media before they're properly socialized. That makes sense. A socially-awkward 12-year-old in real life is bound to make mistakes on the Internet, especially without a clear example of what they should be doing. But who sets that example?

I have three young kids who are dying to know about, and engage with, technology. I've tried to keep them off the Internet, but thanks to our excellent public school system and the magic of BlackBoard, they're online doing their homework almost every day.

They collaborate with classmates via Google Docs and ask me how to upload YouTube videos into their PowerPoint slides for social studies. I stare blankly at them, wondering how we went from printing out coloring pages to this. Now I argue with my 8-year-old about playing Minecraft via Xbox Live. Just because the person you're playing with says he's a fourth-grader, doesn't mean he's not actually a random dude from Denmark with candy in his pants.

In the past, kids earned the freedom to make their own mistakes. Of course, in the past, I spent all day roaming around the woods behind my house; my parents were both unaware of my location and totally secure of my well-being. But now, we live in a different world. I hear that refrain from parents constantly. It is a whole new world. I can't turn my 11-year-old loose on the Internet any more than I can drop her off downtown with $1 for pizza and $1 for bus fare (something I totally did back in 1982).

In 2014, I feel the need to be cautious with their safety. Where the Internet is concerned, I monitor -- even if it sometimes feels invasive to me. My parents didn't eavesdrop on my phone calls, when I paced back and forth for hours chattering about boys, twining the cork-screwed twirl of the phone cord between my fingers. Now, kids sit in silence and text. Who are you texting? What are you saying? Did you just take a picture?

I've resigned myself to the fact that I must learn about 8-second Vines and how easy it is to screenshot a Snapchat before it disappears. But I don't really want to. It's overwhelming and outside of my comfort zone and it takes a lot of time. I could go on forever with excuses. But I have to. And you know what? I didn't really want to learn about two-handed breast stroke turns, or Girl Scout travel insurance claim forms, or whether runners on first base can steal second on a strike. But when my kids started doing these things, I had to keep up. If I stand any chance of providing a good example to them, I have to learn about the online and social media world in which they live.

We're the first generation of parents trying to manage and moderate our children's access to, and behavior on, social media. Unlike almost every other area of parenting, I can't ask my grandmother or my mom for advice about this. In fact, our failures and successes will form the bedrock of how the next generation of parents deal with whatever technology throws at us (and our kids).

That's terrifying, right? How we choose to parent around this counts. How we choose to balance the freedom to make mistakes, and the safety of providing our oversight will matter in the future.

(c) Mommyland Blogs 2014


  1. I would argue that, at a certain age, you CAN let your kids have a bit of freedom downtown, or wherever. It's hard, I know, but there actually aren't predators everywhere. In fact, your child is more likely to be abused by a family member or familiar adult than by a random stranger.

    When my daughter was ten, I gave her a $20 and a short grocery list and let her ride a mile to the local Safeway to shop. Then I paced the floor until she returned 30 minutes later, reporting that she not only asked the produce guy where to find the "romanian lettuce", but she remembered to put in our phone number to get the discount on chips. She was proud of herself (and I was proud, too).

    Now that she is 11, she rolls her eyes at me and sighs because what used to be an adventure is now a chore. It's okay, though, because she accepts bribe in the form of York Peppermint Patties.

    I recently read a blog post at Free Range Kids about middle school kids and risk. Here is the quote that resonated with me: "Positive risks feels just as satisfying to a teen’s brain as negative risks. In other words, the kid who auditions for the school play gets the same rush as the kid who steals his dad’s beer. We should be pushing our kids to do things that scare them – and us – to satisfy the biological need for risk so that they don’t find more dangerous ways to satisfy it themselves."

    Oh, and here is the link:

    As for technology, we are on the same page there. There is much that is icky on the internet. What I hope, though, is that the risks I encourage my kids to take in the real world, will give them the confidence they need to navigate the virtual world.

  2. There's a "cell phone contract" floating around that a mom wrote and required be signed before giving her son a smartphone for Christmas. It starts with "I will always know the password" and goes on to make it super clear that mom and son were on the same team. I think it's brilliant, and easily adapted to internet use. Telling kids just "No" only works until they figure out that they know the tech better that we do and figure out how to hide their activity. (Because they will, come on, didn't you? As soon as something was forbidden, what was the ONLY thing you wanted?) But when you say "I am on your side, and it is my job to keep you safe until you are old enough to know what safe behavior looks like and make safe choices on your own"... it just works better. :)

  3. My department actually just did a series of (short) online videos about these types of things. There's some on cyberbullying (and how to prevent it), common apps and how they can be used to cyberbully, potential dangers of posting selfies etc. The whole intent is to help educate parents so they can help their kids navigate the internet "waters". (We're a non-profit organization, not looking to sell anything- just to educate!)

  4. Okay, being a young adult I had watched my parents deal with the same thing you are going through right now and was the recipient of their decisions, obviously. Here are some things that my parents did and whether I thought they were helpful or not. First, teach your children about internet safety. This was huge. Just make them aware of the fact that seedy websites will give your computer viruses, strangers on the web are still strangers no matter how many pictures you see of them, pictures are NOT okay, never to post their location on social media, and that the world is a dangerous place. On the other hand, it's a beautiful tool. Your kids are going to do dumb things, but you can only give them information. The best thing my parents did was trust me. I didn't want to betray that. They gave me guidelines along with explanations and expected me to live up to them. They didn't check up on everything I did, but they did have regular conversations about things. For instance we had a discussion about how I met someone online and wanted to hang out with them in person (but they were friends of a friend and I verified that they actually went to the school, etc.) My parents taught me how to meet people safely (public environment, let people know where you are, check up with people, go with a friend, etc) I feel like it really helped vs some other kids who did have parents watching their every move and instead just learned how to google search "delete history" and things like that.

    TLDR version- You can't stop your kids from finding things on the internet. It's too accessible from so many sources. You can inform them about safe practices and keep an open dialogue though and that will help a ton. You have to trust that you have taught them to do the right thing in the end.
    I really hope this helps. Sorry if anything doesn't make sense. It really just spilled out and I felt like I needed to get this out there.




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