Taming The Social Media Beast

“I want a phone!”

   “You are not ready for a phone. You are only 8.” 

“But everybody else in my middle school prep class has one!”

   “First you have to show us you can use your ipod we just got you correctly and responsibly.”

“You are the worst parents ever!”

No, this is not some script of Sesame Street gone wrong.   This is a (slightly) exaggerated conversation that many parents are having with their children these days. Ironically, most kids basically want the phone for social media; things like texting, Facebook, Snap Chat, etc. I’m not even sure they use their smart phones to make phone calls any more.

As the scope and power of social media rises, conversations like these are inevitable.   So when do you start to allow your children access to social media? How do you monitor it? This is a tricky subject as it is clear that there are both benefits to social media used well, but potential major harm when used poorly or irresponsibly.

I don’t think there will ever be a universally agreed on age of appropriate time to start. According to the “Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act”, children under 13 are most vulnerable in that they do not understand “safety and privacy issues” online.   Dr. Shawn Sidhu suggests this age cutoff comes from the widely agreed developmental stance that kids under the age of 13 generally do not have well adapted abstract thinking.   They tend to be more impulsive and are not developed well in judging how current actions affect the future. Does this mean, however, that every 13 year-old is ready to handle social media in a consistently safe and thoughtful way? Does Mark Zuckerberg need food stamps?

I don’t have to explain why it may be scary or reckless to assume that a 13 year-old has the capacity to manage social media that a 12 year-old doesn’t. In fact, impulse control, judgment, “cause and effect” decision making don’t fully develop for most of us until at least our mid 20’s.

That being said, we can’t stop teenagers from accessing social media. There is no true right or wrong to the exact age of when to start as, like Facebook names, no two teenagers are alike. Therefore, every parent must approach this from a thoughtful and individualized approach.

First you should consider if the child is capable of truly appreciating the potential negative and dangerous impact his actions could have in social media. This begins with conversations early and often regarding using social media safely and successfully.   Perhaps, before trying to do this with a child, a parent should first be well-informed.

The website, “commonsensemedia.org” is a good place to start for this. It has information broken down by the child’s age and developmental level in helping decide how much social media exposure the child should have.   It also covers other very important subjects such as privacy settings, cyberbullying and how to monitor your child.

I like the name of the website.   In most cases, I think a parent is capable of using common sense; of making the decision of whether or not the child is ready to navigate the bumpy waters of social media. Often, parents are so concerned in getting this decision just right, that they forget that the plan can always change based on how things are going. You can also model good use by limiting your own use and showing how you use good judgment in what is posted and how you protect your privacy.

Parents may allow use earlier than they are comfortable. Perhaps they don’t want their child to be upset, angry, or be an “outcast”. Maybe they just want to avoid conflict. If you do not think your child is ready, either strongly limit or do not allow social media use. Someday, that angry “6 year-old in a 13 year-old body” will thank you for keeping him safe.

Generally, if your child cannot sit with you and have a productive discussion about social media use, then she should not be allowed to use it in any capacity beyond basic, direct observation. I believe this expectation should include that the child be able to sit through the conversation, not roll her eyes, make annoyed faces, be sarcastic or generally disrespectful about it.

The child should be expected to listen well and demonstrate that she truly understands. Savvy kids can pull the wool over the parents’ eyes at first. They can say the right things to get privileges only to run rough-shod over the rules. With vigilant monitoring, however, they will be busted for misuse.

Gradual and incremental increases of independence should come from the child’s ability to consistently make good choices and be responsible. Overall, it is best to require the child let you be a “friend” early on so you can directly monitor how he wrangles the beast of social media.

This is a tricky subject and it would be easy to avoid conflict with it. It is one, however, that must be addressed directly because the use of social media is not going away, and it seems every day there is more evidence that irresponsible and reckless use can cause severe harm.

We as parents must step up and work with our kids to protect them from the potential pitfalls of social media and, more importantly, teach them to protect themselves. Not long ago, it was much easier to do this.   Social media used to consist of two kids hollering at each other through walkie-talkies or soup cans connected with strings.

Times were simpler but as you struggle with this, take solace in the fact that parents back in the day didn’t have “Candy Crush” or “Words With Friends” either.

-Thanks to Shawn Sidhu, M.D. AACAP news July/August 2015, pp 169-170.

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