“Do You Know Where Your Children Are….Online?” Why parents need to create social media accounts and friend their children.

Cyber Bullying

Cyber Bullying (Photo credit: Enzo Morelos)

 

 

Given the recent media stories about students enduring ongoing mean comments via social media, we as parents need to understand the social media applications being used by our children and go online to see firsthand how our kids and their friends interact in these spaces.

 

As a teacher, coach, and administrator of middle and high school students in both public and private schools for over twenty years, I have seen the evolution of social media’s importance in the lives of our kids. I understand its appeal because peer relationships during these formative years trump most all other connections, and social media has the potential to bring kids together in positive ways.  I have also seen firsthand the negative impact social media can have on our children. I have talked with kids who have been targets of vulgar comments multiplied significantly by social media’s power to project a single comment to hundreds of people instantly. I have watched students stay home from school or consider changing schools because of the endless barrage of mean, public comments they received from kids using social media. These incidents are not isolated to a single school community and occur more often than students and parents might expect. For example, “69% of social media-using teens think that peers are mostly kind to each other on social networking sites; however, 88% of teens have seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on a social networking site.” (Pew Research Center, FOSI, Cable in the Classroom, 2011)

 

If we took these negative behaviors out of the virtual space and saw them taking place at Starbucks, we would intervene.  We would not allow our sons or daughters to curse at another child, to make racial or sexual jokes, or to say mean, hurtful words.  It is likely that any adult standing nearby hearing these comments would ask the kids to stop using foul language and acting unkindly.  Why?  Because the comments and targeted slurs violate our understanding of common decency and contradict social norms for how people should treat others. It’s just wrong, our children know it, and as adults we need to correct the behavior when it happens.

 

All school administrators and teachers talk to students about behaving online in the same courteous, respectful way we expect them to behave during the school day.  Yet, Kids will make mistakes.  They make decisions in the moment that contradict what they know is right.  So, what to do? As parents, we may know about Facebook, but we have not created our own account.  Or, if we have, we stay away from our children’s accounts, so they can have “their space.”  Many parents simply are not aware of the social media kids are using – what’s Instagram, Ask FM, SnapChat, Vine?!  As parents, we feel overwhelmed by this changing landscape, and rather than face it, we explain our lack of involvement by saying “I can’t keep up with all of that social media,” or “The kids pick it up easily; it’s how they communicate.” We do need to change our thinking, and it’s time we learn about the online social worlds in which our kids participate.

 

We should know how our kids behave online.  Only “7% of U.S. parents are worried about cyberbullying, even though 33% of teenagers have been victims of cyberbullying” (PEW Internet and American Life Survey, 2011). Given such statistics, we should take responsibility for checking our children’s online behavior just as we do their behavior offline.  We should familiarize ourselves with the latest social media applications by opening accounts and observing the interactions taking place. We should tell our kids we plan to learn more about these applications, let them know once our account is established, and ask them to “friend” us or add us to their groups.  Imagine the look of surprise, shock, dismay, and disbelief on their faces! Imagine the dinner conversation! Why not?  We can no longer say we do not have time, we can no longer assume that everything is fine, and we can no longer afford to rationalize our lack of knowledge.  We need to educate ourselves and explore these spaces.

 

So, where to begin? Here is a starter list of applications to explore.

 

  • AskFM
  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Vine
  • SnapChat

 

Google each application, open an account, read postings, and find your kids online.  Ask your kids to show you how to use them.  Require your kids to “friend” you on Facebook, which is similar to meeting the friends they spend time with offline.   The online experience for students can be rewarding and build community. In fact, “65% of social media-using teens have had an experience on a social networking site that made them feel good about themselves” (Pew Research Center, FOSI, Cable in the Classroom, 2011).  However, the potential for behaving badly is present, and the consequences can be long lasting.

 

What’s at stake?  At best, we create the opportunity to confirm our children’s good behavior, and at worst we find opportunity to teach lessons about, courtesy, compassion, empathy, and judgment.  Unfortunately, often parents do not know their child’s online presence until I have to call home to share a screenshot revealing a recent indiscretion.  Kids make mistakes, but they make fewer of them when we are aware of their behavior and able to teach them lessons along the way.  It’s time we take a stroll online.

 

 

 

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