I was twenty-five years old when I signed up for a Facebook account, and in many ways I can’t imagine how my middle and high school experience would’ve been impacted had the world of social media been available to me. Which is probably why the notion of raising my kids in this Brave New World feels so intimidating. With that in mind, I turned to a group of older, wiser moms of children 10-18 years old. I asked them several questions regarding kids and social media, and from their responses drafted 5 basic principles for parenting in the digital generation.
1. Know Your Child
This was one of the most compelling statements I heard from a mom: “I think young people behave online as they behave in their day to day lives. If you see pettiness and dishonesty day to day, it will come out online. If the day to day habit of life is to act with honesty and respect, the same will occur in their electronic communication.” In this same vein, a few of the moms I polled adopt a zero social media policy, simply because they believe their children aren’t ready for it.
2. Establish Ground Rules
The #1 rule the vast majority of moms either established or wished they had established was to keep all computers, X-boxes, and televisions out of their child’s bedroom and in a public living area. Alongside this, virtually every mom agreed that it was wise or would’ve been wise to keep cell phones out of their child’s room overnight. The second most widely adopted rule was that parents had to be privy to all social media activity. While some parents simply “friend” or subscribe to their children’s on-line profiles, others require the password so they can see all private messages as well. One dad who requires his kids to hand over their passwords explained to me that the notion of “privacy” for a teenager is bogus when it comes to social media, because by its very nature social media is a public sphere. Naturally, rules entail consequences. When one mom discovered that her kids had used iPods to secretly open up Instagram accounts, she took away the iPods–not because her kids had created accounts, but because they’d done it deceptively.
3. Educate Your Kids
In addition to ground rules, most parents talked to their kids about the dangers of the Internet, the permanence of what’s posted on it, and the fact that what we write shapes how we’re viewed. As a former teacher, I remember sitting in a meeting as the headmaster announced that for the first time our school was making the decision to expel a student for Facebook activity which the student refused to erase. The lesson? Writing on-line is not the same as writing in a journal, and kids need to realize that the consequences aren’t the same either.
4. Put Technology to Work for You
I loved this mom’s practical advice: “I think the best thing we ever did was pay 5 dollars a month for parental controls on our Verizon account. It was easy to manage and I could set it up and change it to fit whatever situation arose. I could have the phone go off at certain times on school nights and extend the hours on weekends. I could block numbers of certain “friends” altogether. I could also see who was texting, when and how much. I couldn’t see the text but just the amount of time spent texting.” This same mom also made me aware of the free “Life 360” app, which can be installed on your children’s phones to track where they are, a particularly helpful tool when they’re old enough to drive. She said, “We never ran up against any of the kids feeling like Big Brother was watching because we implemented most of these things early and they just became accepted.”
5. Use Social Media as an Opportunity for Biblical Instruction
One thing is for sure: when it comes to social media, there’s a steep learning curve, which (yes) makes us nervous but also presents an awesome opportunity for real life training. Whether the scenario is as mild as a child posting something she later regrets, or as significant as ruining relationships and losing friends over a post (both real stories moms shared with me), social media gives us the opportunity to teach in the context of the moment. And it’s not all about protection and prevention–social media has HUGE positive potential for influence. One mom said her kids use Facebook to share their faith and promote youth group activities. Amen! I’m actually Facebook friends with her kids and can honestly say few things are more encouraging than seeing a high school boy openly and passionately proclaim the goodness of God via Facebook.
After all my research was through, I noticed one over-arching pattern. The parents who felt the most positive toward social media were the ones whose kids talked to them about social media issues. In other words, the parents with the closest relationships to their children felt the most confident when it came to social media. Which leads me to a very interesting conclusion: I don’t think social media is really the issue. I think the real issue is the heart. Social media is just one more realm for the beliefs, desires, and motivations of the heart to expose itself.
Maybe, then, the focus of my concern shouldn’t really be a computer, but the souls of the two little girls God has graciously entrusted to me. Maybe the best thing I can do now to prepare my kids for the world of social media is to know my kids now. To play with them while they still want to play with me, listen to them while they still want to talk to me, build a relationship with them while I’m still their favorite person in the world. And one day when they ask for a Facebook account, after I’ve established rules and set up parental controls, I’ll remember that ultimately my Hope isn’t in any of those things. I’ll remember it’s in the One who has the power to protect and sanctify their hearts.
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