We are born for connection and relationships and we no longer live in small villages where our friends and contacts are easily accessible. For this reason, the online communication options we have can be wonderful tools. But in the same way that face to face communication can either be a blessing or, so terribly destructive; social media can be the same. The extra layer we have with online communication; however, is that it can be much harder to see those people lurking in the shadows that we want to protect our children from or the images and information that they are not yet ready for.
Therefore the question is not IF they have access to social media (it may be when) but rather what steps do we take to protect children from the dangers of social media and how to help children learn to be Social Media-savvy, alert and aware, and protect themselves from the dangers and pitfalls.
Mirroring parenting in its other forms is a good model to apply to the use of electronic devices. Let’s take some of the basics like food, clothing and activity choices. When children are young, parents have full control over these, sometimes offering limited choices but really parents know best and the choices are not really choices (it’s this healthy option or that healthy option). Then as children become older, demonstrate responsibility in choice and have knowledge of what’s best, parents begin to hand this responsibility over to them. The use of phones and devices is similar. I would recommend parents have full access and control over their children’s devices at least until the end of Middle School. Parents should always be able to see anything their child is doing online. As children prove to be trustworthy over several years, it will become the norm that only occasionally parents check their child’s online activity to make sure they are still on track. ‘If there’s nothing to hide there’s nothing to worry about’, is a good rule of thumb. If children are secretive, there has to be a reason for this that is worth looking into. Spot checks both in Middle School and later should always be the norm.
Show interest in their online activity
There are a lot of fun things they do that are harmless and entertaining or informative. These things can be enjoyed together. Showing curiosity and having them teach you about these things is a great way to enjoy time together. It also provides an opportunity to point out the pitfalls that can occur. If your child shows you a conversation that has ‘gone south’ you can discuss how to deal with it and support them. Asking them, ‘What would you do if…’ allows you both to plan for when things happen so that they know what to do. Or, discussing situations that have occurred to other people and how to address them can be a great platform to help them learn how to protect themselves from harm. ‘Asking for a friend’ can be another way to address issues you know may actually be happening to them and to keep defensive responses away so the conversation is productive.
Here are some dos and don’ts for online use
- Be aware and alert for games that look cute and completely fine but have opportunities for strangers to chat with your child.
- Don’t use your real name or your child’s real name to set up games.
- Set up family rules about where and when they can use devices.
- Ban them if they break a rule you have set! For example, no phones in your room after a 6 pm curfew.
- Don’t ban your child if you find out from them about something inappropriate – they won’t tell you next time. They may find other ways to game or message and you want them to come to you when they need to tell you about a problem.
- Use complex passwords and change them every holidays.
- Set up restrictions and filters on your child’s gaming and social media accounts with them – so they can learn how to do this for themselves. Talk about why you are doing this and discuss the reasons for this.
- Be vigilant. Have your child tell you if someone unknown to them has asked to be their ‘friend’.
- Talk to your child about fads. Recently, the TikTok Blackout Challenge was presented as harmless fun. Students were informed of the extreme potential danger of this fad and the school followed-up with students who needed more help to understand this.
- Discuss what threatening or bullying behaviour looks like online and teach your children how to respond appropriately to this including taking screenshots in case they may be needed.
- Check the classifications on games and apps and set restrictions that reflect these.
- Teach your child to be brave enough to speak up and report.
Encourage the good stuff. Deal kindly but clearly with anything that goes wrong. Find ways to have open lines of communication and be curious.
Jacq Vreeling, Head of Middle School