One of the trickiest parts of parenting is teaching our kids how to safely do things that have a great potential for harming them. It starts with teaching them to use scissors safely when they’re preschoolers, then sharp knives to cut their own food and, before we know it, how to drive a car. We don’t like it but we do it because we know the alternative—that they do these things without ever learning how to do them safely under our guidance—is much worse.
Whether we like it or not, our kids will grow up and use the internet with all of its potential cyberbullying, fake news and disturbing content. We could ban them from all of it while they’re still children, tweens and teenagers; or we can teach them how to use social media—and, more broadly, the internet—safely.
Remember when we thought “Stranger Danger” made sense?
We used to teach kids not to talk to strangers. A stranger could hurt you! A stranger could kidnap you! Strangers are dangerous. But then we realised that we talk to strangers all day—the host at the restaurant, the clerk at the post office, the woman in front of us in the grocery store check-out line. We were a walking contradiction.
Only a very small percentage of strangers are dangerous, and those people exhibit behaviours that can tip us off to this fact. And actually, a child is much more likely to be hurt by someone they know rather than someone they don’t. That’s why we started teaching our kids about “tricky people” instead.
We can think about online strangers the same way. Caroline Knorr, parenting editor at Common Sense Media, writes for the Washington Post that it’s better to teach our kids to recognise predatory behaviour than it is to teach them not to talk to strangers online at all:
In today’s world, where kids as young as 8 are interacting with people online, they need to know the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate conversation. Kids are often pressured by their own friends to talk about sex, so they need to know it’s ok to tell peers to back off. Go beyond “stranger danger” and teach them what kinds of questions are not ok (for example, not ok: “Are you a boy or a girl?”; “Where do you live?”; “What are you wearing?”; “Do you want to have a private conversation?”).
What age is the right age?
Like with anything else, a specific age matters less than the level of your individual child’s maturity and readiness. There is no one-size-fits-all guideline here. “But everyone in my class has a profile!” is never going to be a good argument for allowing them to jump onto a social network you’re unfamiliar with. Not all apps are created equal, so before you agree to anything, you should research it.
At the very minimum, you should check the guidelines set by the app itself, and insist (and verify) that they use their correct birthday when creating an account. Some apps, such as TikTok and YouTube Kids, offer different experiences for different age-ranges. But it’s important to note that sometimes the app’s own guidelines still seem to welcome kids too young; so a second place to check for advice is Common Sense Media.
Common Sense Media gives its own reviews and age recommendations of apps and games. In addition, both kids and adults can review the age-appropriateness of the media, as well. Not surprisingly, adults tend to think a user’s age should be older, while the kids’ opinions sway younger. And Common Sense Media itself usually comes in with the most conservative recommendations.
For the game Fortnite, for example, kids say users should be 10 years old, parents say 11 years old and Common Sense Media says 13. The reviews can help you determine why an app is rated a certain way and whether it may be something your child is individually ready for.
It’s ok to say “no”
If you’re not going to let them log on, tell them why. My son, at 9 years old, is not yet on any social media sites. He does, however, frequently ask me to download new games he’s heard about from friends at school. I have a standard response that he expects and accepts: “Let me do a little research and I’ll let you know later today or tomorrow.”
If the answer ends up being “no,” which is more often than not the case for now, I tell him why. “No; I discovered there may be some videos on there that you might find scary or overwhelming.” Or, “No, the app doesn’t do a good job of weeding out the people who go on there just to say mean things.”
Is he happy about the “no’s”? Why, no, he is not. But even the process of walking him through my decision-making is helpful in preparing him for the day when he’ll have to decide what is appropriate or tolerable for himself.
When they’re ready, ease them in
You wouldn’t take your kid on the freeway the first time they got in the driver’s seat, and you also shouldn’t sign them up for whatever social media app they’re pining for and then leave them to navigate it for themselves. The Be Internet Awesome program is a great place to start to introduce concepts like spam, phishing, privacy and oversharing.
Then, create the account together and sit with them as they navigate it for the first few times. Laura Higgins, director of digital civility at Roblox, suggests looking for teachable moments, such as pointing out unkind behaviours from other users and opportunities to lend support or be a good role model. Be present with them in this online part of their lives.
“The online world for kids is just their world and we should be talking about it with them the way we talk to them about their day at school,” Higgins says.
Cyberbullying vs. socialising
Much of what we read about kids and social media use—or even something as seemingly innocuous as Google Docs—centres around concerns over cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is certainly cause for concern; but Knorr writes that most kids say social media actually strengthens their relationships:
Most kids want to have fun, hang out and socialise normally online — and, in fact, according to our research, that’s what the majority are doing. Check out these comforting stats:
Most teens say social media has a positive effect on them.
Social media is an important avenue of creative expression.
The quality of kids’ online relationships has a big impact on their well-being.
So while teaching kids to recognise, stand up against and report cyberbullying is important, it’s also key for parents to acknowledge that teens view social media as a positive tool for communication and creativity.
Parental controls will only get you so far
You should absolutely use whatever parental and privacy controls a site has available to keep as much inappropriate content as possible off their feeds, especially as you’re first teaching them about internet safety and behaviour. But eventually, they’ll learn how to use decoy apps to hide photos, videos or messages from you and they’ll know how to create fake profiles you don’t even know to look for.
In fact, once they’ve got access to the internet and an email address, they’ll be able to get onto virtually any site or app they choose. You won’t have the upper hand forever.
That’s why a focus on responsible online behaviour, as well as creating an atmosphere in the home of openness and trust, will be more beneficial in the longterm than simply trying to lock them down.
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