“Just say no!” she said with authority. “And stick to your guns.” We were at a dinner party at a friend’s house when a parent who takes a hard line on social networking began offering advice.
Even though I strongly disagreed with her, I didn’t want to spoil a pleasant evening so I headed to the buffet. I’m not one to shy away from a good argument, but when it comes to kids and technology, my perspective is different than many parents’ — and that’s probably putting it mildly.
I’ll come clean: I’m a tech geek. I’m enamored with technology; not only that but I’ve been making a living writing about it for some pretty geeky publications — PC World, PC Magazine, Popular Science, and many more — since Mark Zuckerberg was in kindergarten. There’s no doubt that my love affair with technology has influenced my parenting, especially when it came to letting my two teenagers loose in cyberspace.
My attitude has been, essentially, Bring it on! I gave my kids almost complete freedom to use Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, smart phones, GPS location tools, and anything else they wanted. Much the same way my parents saw the bicycle, despite its potential dangers, as a way to give me freedom to explore the world, I saw social media as a way to let my kids find their voices. Most important, I didn’t leave them out there to fend for themselves. I used these same tools to keep an eye on them — whenever possible. Some people might call this cyberstalking. Others might call it lax. I call it smart parenting in the digital world.
As parents, we can’t expect our newly fledged human beings to sort out such massive technological and social changes on their own. And while the hardline approach — “Just say no” — isn’t as bad as ignoring your kids’ online behavior, both strategies ultimately leave them unsupervised in potentially dangerous territory.
Risky business in the digital world
Of course, plenty of parents may not agree with my approach, but the reality is that most kids today, especially teens and tweens, are spending much of their time online, parental approval notwithstanding. But while they may be digital natives, that doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey of teens’ online use found that 59 percent of them had deleted or edited something they had posted on their Facebook page. And among teen users who said they were very or somewhat concerned about strangers accessing their accounts, 26 percent said that they regretted updates, comments, photos, or videos they’d posted.
A follow-up 2018 Pew study found that approximately one-third of all teens sometimes or often deleted their social media posts (or restricted access to them) because they thought it would hurt them later on. About the same share of teens did so because they didn’t want their parents to see what they had posted.
To varying degrees teenagers will always be risk-takers. It’s a natural part of growing up. But now many of those risks are online, where teens can encounter advertising scams, identity thieves, and sexual predators, among other dangers. So you shouldn’t be afraid to act as a guide for your child through the landscape of social media.
Watching my kids as they ventured out into this amazing new world gave me a hundred ways my parents never had to help my kids grow. I saw sadness, drama, and new interests unfold with a glance at my phone. I could “meet” the friends they never brought home. Sure, it required keeping up on a bazillion privacy details, teaching ground rules, coaching social skills, and spending time “stalking” them in their networks. But I think that comes with the parent territory these days.
Saying yes — and staying involved
Of course this brave new world makes parents nervous, and I get it. The mom delivering the uncompromising lecture at the dinner party was talking about her 8-year-old who wanted to get on Instagram. A photo sharing social network where the privacy setting is public by default is not the place for an 8-year-old. But there are social networks designed for young kids. A more forward-looking response might have been, “You’re too young for Instagram. The social network you’d like is Messenger Kids. Let’s check it out!”
Signing on together would give mom an opportunity to supervise, whereas an all out ban won’t necessarily keep a child away from a network. It might only teach the child to simply sign up without telling mom. A 2023 Express VPN survey found that in the U.S. and United Kingdom, 24 percent of kids age 4 to 13 lied about their age online — sometimes to get their own social media account or to pose as being older if they already had one.
So if the request didn’t go away when my daughter was young, I would have sat down with her to look at the site and hopefully dispel any excitement with hard facts. If that didn’t work, we would have set a date when she would be allowed to join or, if I decided it was the prudent course, we joined together.
A digital search for the right pastry
When it comes to teaching kids tech smarts, location-aware social networks — the “Check in” feature on Facebook or location tagging in Twitter — merit instruction. Using a smart phone’s GPS, the site allows you to broadcast your location and share it with whatever part of your social network you choose. These tools scare the bejesus out of some parents, while others are completely unaware they exist. And they are a good example of why kids need to be taught to use social media safely.
It is without doubt dangerous for anyone — especially a young teen girl — to broadcast her precise location to a large and faceless crowd. But consciously broadcasting her location to a carefully curated group can be an easy way to find her friends at the mall — or share her whereabouts with mom and dad. Good or bad, these tools exist, and would be easy for any smart-phone wielding kids to use without their parents’ knowledge. For me, the smart play is to get there first and teach my kids how to use the tools well.
So on vacation once, I asked my kids to download Foursquare to their smart phones. I showed them that the app could post their location to Facebook and Twitter, and how to shut that feature off. Then, we created a small group that they could share with — a group that included me. One morning, while the kids were sleeping late, my husband and I went out for coffee. Using Foursquare, I shared our location and a tempting menu of pastries with them. They got up, used the navigation to locate us, and showed up at our table. Since they had found us just by using my check in, they could see how a stalker could do the same thing. Then we all ate pastries.
[Foursquare is long past its social networking heyday, but its location-tracking technology is widespread on many popular apps. All iPhones also have location-tracking capability.]
Granted, my success in teaching my children about social networks created its own problems.
My son had become good at false identities, locking down privacy settings to keep me out. Once, he created a completely separate Facebook account and migrated his friends over to the new one. He left the old one alive and well, even posted witty announcements to it, just for his dad and me. And we fell for it — until, one day he accidentally chastised a friend on the old account: “This account is just for my parents, dummy. Post this kind of stuff to my real page.” We had been completely played.
I considered getting back at him by posing as an adorable high-school freshman girl and friending him on the new page. But I took the high road and insisted that at his age (14 at the time), I had to be on his friends list or he would lose Internet access. I got refriended and this decision alone told me he wasn’t hiding from me for dark reasons. Teens just want privacy. But they need to be repeatedly reminded that social media sites are the last place you should go to seek it.
Building an online brand
My later conversations with my son about social media focused on how to create a public self that reflects his accomplishments, rather than the silly jokes he shares with his peeps. A positive social media presence is a valuable asset. So I found myself telling him about networks like Cappex.com, designed to help kids connect with colleges. I also urged him to seek out college admissions officers and adult mentors to friend on his networks.
[The forums at College Confidential, where students and parents chat endlessly about college life and college admissions can also be a good place to look.]
Poor judgement on social media can be deadly when it comes to college and job opportunities. A 2012 report by Kaplan Test Prep found that 35 percent of college admission officers surveyed said they’d “discovered something online about an applicant that negatively impacted their application” — up from 12 percent in 2011. The impact of social media postings on a person’s job prospects can also be big. A Career Builders 2017 survey found that 70 percent of employers use social media to screen candidates before hiring. Candidates whose posts contained inappropriate photographs or videos, remarks that were defamatory about women, racial or religious groups, or brags about personal drug or alcohol use, were especially disfavored.
So parents should talk to kids about how their social networking creates a personal brand — whether they like it or not. If the brand screams, “Beer pong champion!” it won’t get you far, outside of the party. But if you convey that you’re a deep thinker who reads Crime and Punishment, spends Sunday afternoons at a soup kitchen, and wrote the song you just played and posted, your social media will be always out there advancing your goals. Getting my son to think of the world as bigger than his immediate social network was a big conversation. But it’s one that would allow him to turn his social media skills into a powerful and positive tool.
The age of unfriending
My daughter was once at the dawn of the Age of Unfriending — when kids try to rid their social networks of pesky parents and anyone who would rat them out to same. It doesn’t necessarily mean kids are up to anything nefarious. She alternated between welcoming me into her social networks and ordering me to leave. I might have been able to stop her from unfriending me with the reliable, “I don’t buy computers for people who aren’t friends!” line. But I couldn’t stop her from creating an isolation list for me. So, in addition to never commenting on her posts or reacting with punishments, I did a lot of strategic online gifting. Would you unfriend someone who just posted an H&M shopping spree on your wall?
Of course, I found a way to talk to her about anything risky I saw her doing online. That’s the point of all of this surveillance in the first place. I initiated these discussions in her room with the door closed, not online or in front of her friends. At 14, she didn’t want her friends to know she learned anything from me. She might even have ignored or yelled at me while I talked to her to convince herself of this. But my message usually got through. In fact, I saw her use information from our chats to inform her friends.
Would taking a hard line with my kids have been easier or better for them in the long run? I doubt it. They would find a way, with or without me, to use social media. And that would mean they would have had to learn a lot the hard way…in front of hundreds of friends and countless strangers. And besides, they are my favorite people in every social network I frequent, even if they were — sometimes — a bit juvenile.