With Back to School right around the corner, I want to talk about preparing your family for a new school year by starting on the right digital foot. Social media is just part of our daily lives, so as you check off your Back to School List for the start of the school year, take the time to talk about social media with your kids. With new beginnings like the first day of middle or high school, it is important to talk to your kids about their online behavior.
First, we need to address social media and how to use it to promote healthy friendships, build virtual connections, and share parts of their lives so they develop and grow into healthy adults. Social media and online interactions can have very positive effects on kids; however, you need to talk about how to navigate online before leaving them to tackle this virtual world. I often say in my trainings, “would you give your teenager the keys to your car and say good luck or have fun without them learning to drive…NO! You would put them through drivers ed, sit in the passenger seat and coach them, and you would even have them practice in a parking lot. So why don’t we do this to help our kids navigate the internet?” I think it has to do with fear and lack of knowledge about social media. So we give our kids hyped up phones and basically say good luck! Sooner or later it will come crashing down. So having these talks are critical for your child’s development and emotional safety.
As a starting point, I would recommend creating family ground rules about using social media. Set up a family meeting and talk about what you agree is appropriate and inappropriate to post online. During this family meeting, ask questions without judgment, learn about your child’s online patterns, and talk about your fears openly regarding their social media interactions. In this meeting, take a collaborative approach, don’t preach and don’t enforce rules that are not common practices in your home. Come up with 5 to 7 clauses in the family contract that all family members agree to uphold. Talk about consequences of not following the contract, but also share with them that if they are in trouble or being harassed, you will not judge them or enforce consequences until they feel safe again. I don’t know if you remember your parents telling you, “if you are at a party and you get drunk, call me and I will pick you up no questions asked.” You knew that you would get punished after you sobered up, but you had that safety blanket in case you did mess up. You want to create that same safety blanket for your child.
With the work I do, a lot of students share with me that they have been teased, bullied, harassed, and exposed online, but they refuse to tell their parents out of fear of losing their devices. They would rather be shamelessly mocked online than tell their parents. So be clear about how you are there to protect them. If they are in trouble, it is better to come to you then to hide it. By hiding it or reacting to the online negative behaviors, they might be digging themselves in a bigger hole. Overexposed and bullied children suffer from anxiety, victimization, depression, substance abuse and lack of self-esteem as well as self-confidence. So all it takes is having that conversation to proactively address the “IN CASE THIS HAPPENS” scenario.
Another critical point is to go over what is appropriate to post on social media. Be clear and use examples. For example, it is not appropriate or acceptable to post a picture of someone else without their permission. Be clear with your examples about acceptable and not acceptable posts or pictures. You can even show them a post or picture that is not appropriate and share why its wrong. Make sure you have strong arguments and you are not being judgmental. Try to use posts from celebrities as you can see their comments and often how they get attacked. Use the post or picture as a talking point to see how your child feels about different posts or pictures. You might learn a thing or two, and hopefully, your child will see the importance of appropriate online behavior.
I would also add to the family contract about when it is ok to be online and text. Discuss how it might not be acceptable in your home to post on social media or text during family dinner or outings. Add in specific time for online activity to help your kids disconnect and have all phones be docked in a common area in the evening. This will help your child get a good night rest, and avoid late night posting or texting, which typically can lead to online drama.
Overall I would recommend you have that family meeting and establish a solid contract to help your family be safe online. Then follow up with stand up meetings with your family to see how they are doing online. Just be consistent, educate yourself, and be open to learning more about your teen’s experience online. Knowledge is power!
Until Next Time…
Kortney Peagram, Ph.D
President/CEO Bulldog Solution, Inc.
Adjunct Professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology