If you're like many parents with school-aged children, your answer may well be, “never.” After all, we've all heard the stories—predators, bullying, inappropriate photos, and sexting.
But is “unseemly” the only side of social media? More and more experts on the subject say no. True, Facebook has plenty of sad tales to tell, but it's also emerged as a prime vehicle for run-of-the-mill adolescent mingling—the kind we parents used to do by passing notes in class or by talking. A growing number of teens are even using Facebook as a link to out-of-town grandparents. Experts call it a vital part of today's adolescents' social lives, yet it's hard to see it as more than just a mine-field.
How is it possible to use social media wisely?
That parents are mistrustful isn't surprising. Unlike our children, we weren't born with a keypad attached to our fingers. A January 2012 New York Times article by pediatrician and journalist Dr. Perri Klass likened the leeriness to the long-ago fears that the telephone would destroy civilization as we know it.
Of course, the dangers of social media are real. Studies have been done linking adolescent web activity to risky behavior and depression. In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in with a thorough report about the good (growth of ideas and connections) and the bad (online bullying and harassment).
The reality is that it's here to stay, which might make today's online universe less like the telephone and more like the family car. After all, we know the roads can be perilous, yet most of us let our kids take the wheel by the time they're sixteen. And like the interstate, the virtual highway isn't a place you'd let them travel without some lessons. “On their own, they're using it less safely because they have no opportunity for discussion,” says Janis Arnold, LICSW, a social worker at Children's Hospital Boston who does extensive work with adolescents.
So what do you do?
First up is deciding the right age. The tweens—those not-quite-teen years between roughly age ten and twelve—generally make a good time to teach children how to navigate wisely, if only because the age is prime time for being exposed to social media by peers.
Thirteen is the minimum legal age for most mainstream sites, including Facebook (the AAP strongly suggests honoring those rules), which means that families with younger children will have to do a search for kid-friendly sites. The U.S. Government offers a section on appropriate sites by age at Kids.gov. The Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston offers helpful tips and invites questions for Dr. Michael Rich, the center's director and “Mediatrician.” No matter the age, Arnold says the responsibility is not an instant, no-holds-barred thing, but a privilege that children earn over time.
Once you're ready to jump in, remember to address privacy settings to limit access to your child's profile and to discuss with him or her the detailed rules of the road.
Some additional tips for guiding things along:
- Start with training wheels. It's a good idea to make the first social media account an “ours” not “his” or “hers” arrangement. Same for cell phones. A child's personal account that mom can peruse implies spying. An account you open together as community property—even though it will likely have just your child's name on it—says collaboration.
- Choose your battles. Non-negotiables include talking to strangers, posting explicit photos, publishing addresses, or engaging in gossip or bullying. “Safety first,” says Arnold. After that, there's got to be some room. A declaration of vegetarianism is a perfectly normal assertion for the age group, and not one that threatens the world as we know it. Editorial comment on every thought may send them running to an unsupervised chat room.
- Invoke the “forever” clause. It often comes as a shock to kids that whatever they write or text is forever. You can delete, undo, or erase, but once it's out there, it's somewhere for all time for an industrious soul to unearth. Be responsible for your words, written or otherwise, because they can, and often do, come back to haunt you.
- Friend them. Being on your kids' list of invited “friends” who can read their profile and conversations—”friending” in Facebook speak—means being able to openly see what they're doing without sneaking through a back door. But prepare for the potential unfriending at some time in their young adult future.
- Define “friend.” Tweens might need help discriminating between those who are OK and not OK to talk to. A long list of common friends doesn't make a relationship. If they're not familiar to you, they're not a “friend.” Encourage kids to tell you about requests from strangers, and tell them not to be shy about denying requests from people they don't know.
- Keep them in sight. Seclusion invites adventure, and not always the good kind. Keep computers and cell phones (when in the house) in public spaces. The fringe benefit is you'll also avoid the sleep deprivation associated with all-night texting sessions.
- Protect passwords. A doorway into your account allows people to potentially post comments under your name. Passwords are not to be shared ever.
- Keep an eye on computer history. You don't really need technologically advanced spyware to know where they've been, just the “history” button on your browser (at least until they get savvy enough to delete it).
- TMI (too much information) Patrol. Not every life moment needs to be shared in print. This is an important lesson to grasp lest they grow up and become a cautionary tale of an unfortunate adult who shared too much and lost a job or a relationship.
- NPR weighs in on the issue of social networks and children and lists ten safe social network sites for kids
- SocialMediaForKids.com raises awareness among youth and their families about impacts of social media
- Mashable suggests five fun and safe social networks for children
- Cnn.com tackles the privacy debate and advertising on mobile apps aimed at children