“I’m so happy social media wasn’t around when I was raising you and your sister.” I’ve lost count of the number of times my own mom has said that to me since my daughter was born seven years ago. The comment has always ruffled my feathers because, to be honest, I’m nervous about what the future holds.
Social media adds another layer of complexity to parenting. And parenting is already so hard. On one hand, social media does a lot of good. It brings people together, fosters community (no matter how far away people are physically from each other) and can be a valuable source of knowledge. But there can be a dark side, too. Countless studies and articles speak to the psychological damage social media can inflict on our children.
How do we as parents help our children learn to harness the good of social media while also being hyper-aware of the dangers? How do we teach them from an early age to create a healthy digital footprint with an awareness of our own family values? Two Oklahoma-based social media experts (and parents to boot) Skye Latimer, partner and co-owner of digital and communications agency Folded Owl, and Mike Koehler, owner of digital marketing and advertising agency Smirk New Media, provide much-needed advice and direction.
First and foremost on many parents’ minds: when should kids be allowed to join social media? At Koehler’s house, when his kids turned 15 they were allowed to join one app of their choosing. Similarly, Latimer won’t be letting her little one on social media until high school. There’s a reason they, and most other experts, make their kids wait — younger minds often aren’t ready for the experience.
Whatever age you decide is right for your family, here are Latimer and Koehler’s top tips as you help your children navigate their own healthy, happy and safe online journeys.
1. Make your children work for it and keep them accountable.
Think of social media as a privilege, not a right. And one your child must earn.
Have your kids prove they’re ready. Latimer has a plan for when her little one asks for a TikTok account (or whatever app reigns supreme at that time). They must do their own research and prove to her they’re ready for the responsibility. She wants them to learn the pros and cons of the medium and have an open conversation about their findings. Have your children research and report back to you about which platform they want to use, why they believe they are ready, how they will behave online and when they will come to you if they have questions or problems.
Let’s be friends. Make it a rule that your child must “friend” you (and that includes on any secret accounts, if they have them). This way you can keep an eye on their activity and keep them accountable for their actions. Koehler also sees it as an opportunity to learn more about your child. I’ve yet to venture into the tight-lipped teen years where communication is typically done in monosyllabic words, but as I envision that future, I appreciate his point. Seeing what your kids are posting, their friends list and likes can shed light on their passions, ever-changing personality and world views.
Use parental apps. There are several apps that monitor online activity, including for text messages, emails, YouTube viewing and social media posts. One of the top-ranked companies is called Bark. For an annual fee, they monitor your child’s activity, look for potential safety concerns and send you a convenient dashboard. But remember, these apps aren’t foolproof. It’s still important to check in with your child and see for yourself what they’re up to online.
2. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
Did I mention communicate? Before your child creates an account on social media, talk to them about these important issues and check in often to remind them along the way.
Beware the highlight reel. Their social media feeds will inevitably include filtered photos of their fellow students with flawless skin, make-up and hair. Remind your child that what they see online is someone’s best moments (and often airbrushed at that). No one is going to post unflattering photos, the D they got on their math test or videos of them fighting with their parents and siblings. Kids need to be reminded to never compare their day-to-day with someone’s highlight reel. That’s a losing situation for anyone, adults included.
What happens online, stays online. Write this down, frame it and hang it in their room. What they post online is there forever. The good and the bad. The kind words and the hurtful ones. The flattering images and the embarrassing ones. They’re all there for everyone to see, save and share. For eternity. To infinity and beyond. You get the picture. But your child may not. They need to understand the short- and long-term implications of what they choose to post in the social media universe. Something inappropriate or hurtful could, in the short-term, cost them a friend. In the long-term, it could negate a college or career opportunity.
Stress kindness and inclusivity. Social media has brought people together, which is great. But it has also made it easier for kids to get bullied or be the bully. First and foremost, reinforce the importance of kindness. Encourage your child to appreciate and embrace everyone’s differences. And let them know they can always come to you if they’re having a problem so you can find a solution together. Speak to their teacher or principal to understand the school’s policies when it comes to student conflict online. Learn what your options are if your child is being bullied. And remind your child of the consequences for picking on someone else.
Stranger danger. This phrase is just as apropos for in-person interactions as it is online. Apps like TikTok, YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat as well as various video games open kids up to people from anywhere in the world. Explain to kids that not everyone is who they appear to be and remind them not to share information or images with people they don’t know. Be clear about your expectations of who they are allowed to interact with online and talk about the dangers of interacting with and sharing information with strangers.
3. Set healthy boundaries for them (and practice what you preach!).
I’ll be honest, I get sucked into cute dog videos on TikTok just as much as the next person. And I’ve fallen victim to volleying with a stranger in the comment section a time or two. So this advice applies to all of us, no matter our age.
Set time limits. Give your child a specific amount of time each day to spend on social media. And when time is up, the phone is left in a neutral location (meaning not their bedroom). You can also make them work for it. Maybe they earn one minute of screen time for every one minute of reading. Or 30 minutes of screen time for each chore they complete. They get their social media fix and you have a clean house and a well-read child. #winning
Unplug regularly. Look at something — anything! — other than a screen. Take a 24-hour sabbatical every now and then. Pursue activities away from tablets and phones. Go for a walk. Play a board game. Have a (gasp!) face-to-face conversation. Foster your child’s love of an activity like music, art or sports. Get them up and out and moving their bodies!
4. Continue to educate yourself.
Both Latimer and Koehler stress the importance of staying informed. Take the time to understand the capabilities and features of the platforms you’re letting your kids use. Read the safety and privacy information closely. Sign up for whatever newsletter or announcements the platform offers. This way, you are regularly updated on their terms, any changes they’re making to the app, future plans and more.
Another way to stay informed is to follow (or join) organizations dedicated to keeping kids safe online. A few helpful options include: Safekids.com, the Organization for Social Media Safety and Web Wise Kids.
Good, bad or otherwise, social media isn’t going anywhere. And as it keeps changing, we all — parents and kids — must be both flexible and diligent. Remember that each family is unique. The rules around social media use in your house may look different from those of your friends, siblings or neighbors. And that’s OK.
By consistently conversing with kids about your family values, sharing advice from experts and modeling healthy digital behavior, you are setting a firm foundation for your children to make positive choices when it comes to their social media usage, both now and in the future.