This is a topic that's top-of-mind for me right now, as my 9-year-old daughter becomes increasingly persistent about wanting to have more and more of an online presence. She's on Pinterest, which feels pretty harmless to me--when she even remembers to go on it, she pins pictures of desserts and puppies and bunnies. Over Christmas break I caved and let her join Instagram, on several conditions (such as no pics of herself, and no accepting followers without checking with me first). So far it's working out okay, though there have been a few bumps. For one thing, she was startled and downright confused when a stranger commented on her comment, "Are you retarted?" (I pointed out the irony of the misspelling.) This gave us the chance to discuss what I'd warned her could happen by being on social media, which is that she could get her feelings hurt. Last week she came to me, terrified, after looking up a story about a dead girl who came back to life as a ghost that she'd seen posts about on Instagram. I was able to show her the stories she missed, the ones explaining that it's a total urban legend, and used the opportunity to talk about how real and convincing things can seem online. ("But there's a picture of her and everything!")
Because I feel only barely prepared for everything that's ahead of us, I was so glad to attend a symposium last night called "How Social Media Influences Our Children's Development," organized by The Meeting House, an impressive NYC nonprofit that provides innovative programs for children with social and developmental challenges. (Full disclosure: My sister, a pediatric occupational therapist, works for The Meeting House.) What I found interesting, and somewhat refreshing, about the event is that while the panelists covered the downsides to having children on social media, they spent as much--if not more--time on the benefits and values. I left with these key takeaways:
1. Children need a social-media mentor, someone in the know who can help them navigate the right way to behave online. Ideally, that would be a teacher or a librarian. But as keynote speaker Mega M. Subramaniam, Ph.D., explained, teachers and librarians rarely have the opportunity to guide our kids in that way, because school and public computers automatically filter out all social media sites. Of course, there's a good reason for that. But I hadn't thought of the downside until Dr. Subramaniam pointed it out. She's the associate director of Information Policy and Access Center at the University of Maryland, and runs several social media literacy programs for tweens, and she suggests that in place of a trusted adult, find an older teen your child looks up to--a cousin, a babysitter, a camp counselor--who's demonstrated responsibility online, and have that person help show him the ropes.
2. There's a value to texting, even among younger kids. Julia is dying to text with her friends. I'm not allowing it. I feel it's pointless--what on earth is there to text about when you're in fourth grade?--and I fear it'll erode her writing and spelling skills. But more than that, I worry that texting merely provides her with another avenue to see (or do) something inappropriate or rude. The panelists agreed that 9 is a little young, but they gave me ideas on how to allow it in a controlled way when I eventually do let her text. Stay away from group texts, suggested Orit Goldhamer, Psy.D., a middle-school psychologist at The Churchill School in NYC. Otherwise Julia will get sucked into a thread of neverending emojis and "Hey"s. And let her start out by texting only to plan get-togethers (I almost called them playdates!), as opposed to aimless chitchat that could more easily go awry.
3. Have your child ask herself one simple question before posting anything. And the question is this: "Would you show this to your grandmother?" Oooh. Good one. Or maybe this would work better for you: "Would you be proud to have your teacher see this?" I'll be suggesting that Julia consider both of these.
4. Sign a digital media contract with your child. This will cover everything from time restrictions, to passwords, to where devices need to be kept at bedtime, to the importance of kind behavior, and more. The best one I've seen is from Common Sense Media, but a quick search will give you lots of options. And more importantly than signing the contract is revisiting it, points out Scott Gaynor, Ed.D., head of school at The Stephen Gaynor School in NYC. It's tempting to go over the rules once and shove the paper in a drawer, but just like any important topic we want our children to understand, we need to talk about it often.
5. Fun fact: There's an unspoken rule among kids that you post to Instagram no more than once a day. It's clear that my daughter, who only gets to use her phone on weekends and goes to town on Instagram for those two days and nights, has no idea about this one.
Image: Surprised children on mobile phone via Shutterstock.
Kara Corridan is the health director at Parents. Her two daughters, ages 6 and 9, will tell you they have cell phones "with NO SERVICE."