Navigating Social Media With Your Children

As a family life pastor, I often get emails asking for advice when it comes to teenagers and social media. Many parents feel lost in this ever-growing world of online content. The truth is, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (to name the top 3 among pre-teens and teens) are not going away anytime soon, if ever. The dilemma is for parents is 2-fold: you not only have to learn the ins and outs of social media, but you also have to figure out how to guide your teenager through an ever-changing and evolving world of social media.

Photo courtesy of istockphoto.com

Photo courtesy of istockphoto.com

There are many parents who do not believe that social media has to be a part of everyone’s life, including their children. And, they’re right. It doesn’t. But the truth is- it just is. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, and many other sites have become a staple in our culture. Watch nearly any television station, or venture to any store and you’ll see it- “Like us on Facebook!” “Follow us on Twitter.” “Subscribe to our YouTube channel.” It’s there. It’s present. And that’s not changing.

You do have the option to ignore social media but the reality is, your kids won’t. It’s all around them. And, it appeals to their need to be in community. They will have a connection to social media in some fashion. It will either be under your supervision and guidance or it will be with their friends, outside of your oversight. Besides friends, they will see or hear about it at school or during the youth group retreat they’re attending, at the mall they hang out at, or on TV. Even if a pre-teen or teen does not have an actual account on one of the major sites, they will be exposed to it through culture alone. Social media occupies nearly every part of our world today.

So, in light of that, what do you do as a parent? How do you navigate social media with your children? Well, to begin with, as parents of pre-teens, we are constantly circling back around to, and keeping our focus on, 2 very important truths that supersede social media in a lot of regards:

  • TRUTH #1- The internet never forgets– If your kid posts a picture of themselves getting drunk with friends at age 16 or doing something illegal at age 19, it will be online forever, even if they delete it. The fascinating and dangerous thing about the internet is that content can go viral almost instantly. Ask the politician who took a picture at a frat party nearly 20 years ago.
  • TRUTH #2- The internet deserves respect– The internet has more power than you can even wrap your mind around. Because of this, you must teach your children to respect it. If you respect it, the internet will respect you back. If you disrespect it, you can bet that the internet will disrespect you back.

With this said, here are some social media guidelines and policies to live by as a parent and set up with your teenager. We’ve used them with our children, but I’ve also counseled parents to use them as well:

1. Set up clearly defined and unshakable boundaries.

Before your child becomes an active user, set up boundaries with them. Even if they are already on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, set up boundaries. Make sure the boundaries are crystal clear with no ambiguity. And once the boundaries are set and explained, make them unshakable and non-negociable.

2. Reserve the right to investigate and monitor.  

Reserve the right, a few times a month, to look through their Facebook inboxes, their Twitter feeds, or their Instagram posts. Require their passwords, and let them know that you will be doing this. Be careful not to judge and do not criticize if something catches you off-guard. Have open conversations with your child. And if they are resistant to you keeping tabs on them, let them know that your job is to protect them and keep them safe, along with helping them to make wise choices, before making them happy.

3. Require your kids to friend or follow you

Not only do I believe parents should have Twitter, Facebook or Instagram accounts, I think they should require their children to friend them, follow them, and be plan to be followed back if their child is going to be on social media. Remember- your job is to keep them safe before making them happy.

4. Never allow computer use to be out of sight.

If you allow your pre-teen or teenager to have a computer in their bedroom where they are free to use it however they want, with whomever they want, you can bet that, at some point, dangerous or racy content will be viewed. And with social media, conversations or content cannot be monitored and could become detrimental to their spirit or harmful to them personally if they are permitted to do this privately. Personal computers or laptops should always be in plain and public sight in a family’s home. I would even set up guidelines on smartphone use in personal bedrooms if your teenager has one.

5. Don’t freak out over everything they do and say on social media. 

Remember, they’re kids. They are trying to find their way in a big, cold world. They long for relationships and they have to figure out how to navigate friendships and dating relationships. Obviously, inappropriate content or bullying needs to be stopped immediately but don’t freak out over trivial things such as a spat with a friend or some weird lingo that you don’t understand. Have open conversations with your child and take every opportunity to teach and guide them.

I’m a huge social media fan. I marvel at the power social networking has to connect people around the world and make it seem as though they are sitting in the same room with one another. But, I’m also a big fan of boundaries and making sure people, especially teenagers, use social media wisely. When it’s used wisely, it’s power and functionality is maximized! I would love to hear from other parents on this topic. Don’t hesitate. Join the conversation!

Question: As a parent, what has your experience with your children and social media been? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Raven

    Mike, I would be interested to know your opinion about SnapChat. This has quickly become the most popular app in my 14 year-old son’s group of friends. Many are now using SnapChat over Instagram, Facebook, or messaging. To me, it’s a parents nightmare, and has the opposite problem than all the other social media sites where what you upload is permanent. On SnapChat, children send still images that can be overlaid with text or video clips to their group of friends. Once a chat has been viewed, you can no longer access it to view it again. The impermanence is fun for the kids, and they particularly love it because it protects them from their parents spying on them (unless parents sit with their children daily and open all the chat messages with them). It’s a secret world of private messages. Once I discovered what SnapChat was, I looked at my son’s new chats that had come in. Some of them were harmless or cute pictures, while others were upsetting – crude sexual drawings overlaid on photos, foul language, etc. I am particularly worried about this generation of girls who are taking provocative photos, or sending video clips of them grinding their hips in suggestive dance moves to a whole group of people, including my son. They just don’t understand the meaning of the messages they are sending to each other. This generation is growing up thinking that this is normal conversation/interaction. They are saying/doing things to each other over SnapChat that they would never say or do in front of people because it feels safer to do it through a phone because the message disappears. But the impression these images have on others does not disappear. This mode of communication is made up of spontaneous thoughtless images/text and are replacing real face-to-face communication where you look into another person’s eyes, listen to a voice, be selective about what you say – or even just voice-to-voice communication where you still say the words out loud to each other. It’s all very disturbing to me. My son reacts with typical teenage words, “It’s not a big deal.” But, it is.

    • Hey Raven, I am familiar with snapchat and bottom line- there’s really nothing good about it. It is what I would consider the “sewer” of social media. I agree with you completely! Thanks for your comment.

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