I have two middle schoolers now. Two. At one time. It's intense sometimes. (And fun.)
Since I’m an online publicist, I thought I knew a lot about social media. But, alas, having middle schoolers has awakened me to a whole new side of social media. One that is really kind of scary. Just in the last week, I have read two sobering articles on some of the problems that come with this social experiment – everything from cyber bullying to sexting to hooking up with random strangers.
Someone has said that this generation is the “technology everywhere generation.” No matter where or what they are doing, our teens are usually connected to some social media network. For better or for ill.
So, what’s a parent to do? Like other cultural issues, there are several ways loving, God-honoring parents might choose as an approach to social media. Rather than evaluate each of those, I want to give you two simple challenges: be aware and be involved.
Navigating Social Media with Your Kids
When it comes to social media, two kinds of parents come to mind. You might consider yourself “out of the loop” when it comes to online technology. You don’t own a smartphone and you don’t have time for Facebook and you’re fine with keeping it that way. But, unless you’re keeping your kids pretty insulated, I would advise you to become a little more aware of what is going on in the world around you.
As I type those words, I realize that it can be a very tricky balance. On the one hand, you might be trying to keep healthy social media boundaries yourself. The online world can be a black hole for your precious time – keeping it at bay keeps your life simpler. I get that. Like most things, social media has its pros and cons. But, the reality is that as your kids get older, they are most likely being exposed to social media in one form or another – even if they don’t have their own accounts.
There is another kind of parent though that feels pretty tech savvy. I’m more in that category. I’ve been on Facebook since our kids were little and we were in college ministry. But, your teen does not necessarily use Facebook or Instagram the same way that you do. Don’t assume that just because you know these tools, that you don’t have some learning to do. Because, I’ll be honest, you probably do. To that end, I want to share with you a great resource from my friend, Austin McCann. Austin is our Student Ministry Director. He does an incredible job of keeping the parents in our church equipped to deal with the things that our culture is throwing at our kids. He’s done some great work on his blog to resource parents particularly in this area of social media.
Being aware is only the first part of the equation. The second step is being involved. You’re going to have to help your kids navigate this area. Don’t just leave it up to your youth pastor. YOU have to be hands on. And, I’ll tell you, it’s going to take some of your time.
How can you be involved?
- Do some research. Know which apps your kids are using and how they are using them. Whether it’s a smartphone, an iPod or a personal game system, is there an internet browser available to your kids on it? If so, check the parental controls and filters that are available to you. Don’t assume anything. Your kids might be great kids. But, they are susceptible to temptation just like all of us are. My son is 14 and has chosen to totally get rid of the browser on his phone. He decided it just wasn’t worth it to risk being tempted to look at porn.
- Have an open door policy with your kids. Put parameters on when and where they can be on their devices. Our kids aren’t allowed to have them in their rooms with the doors closed. Warn them that anything they post or text can be checked by you at any time without warning. I know this might mess with your desire to give them some privacy. Over time, you might be able to give them more and more freedom in this way. But, right now, they’re your kids and their online engagement isn’t really all that private anyway. So, it’s certainly fair game for Mom & Dad’s eyes.
- Talk with them. A lot. As you go. Listen to their banter in the car. Be the one driving the carpool on a regular basis. Have their friends hanging out at your house a lot. Make sure you’re "friends" with them on Facebook, etc. Read their posts. My 12-year-old daughter and her friends think selfies on Instagram are the greatest. I’ve had to talk with her about that whole phenomenon. I've also had some great, teachable moments with her about comments that can get misunderstood in a text or online comment. Those conversations go well, in part, because we talk often about other everyday stuff too.
- Follow up with them. When you see something online that makes you uncomfortable, don’t shy away from the awkward conversation that needs to happen with your kids. I’d rather be uncomfortable for a few minutes than see my kids fall prey to bullying or sexting or inappropriate images. Our conversation about twerking after the MTV awards was not the most comfortable one I’ve ever had. We don’t watch MTV but I knew my kids would likely see or hear about that footage. I wanted them to have our perspective before they saw it on YouTube or had their friends’ perspectives.
If you’re not able or willing to put this kind of effort into their online engagement, then I might suggest holding off on an iPhone for Christmas. The commitment isn’t just theirs. It’s yours too. And you just have to know that going in. If you do, the social media world can be a fun place. If you don't, it can be a dangerous place.
Grace and peace,