The world has certainly changed from two decades ago. Back then, youngsters were barely surviving on dial-up internet, while our children now have the world at their fingertips, with laptops, tablets, and smartphones from which they can search for anything that their hearts desire. Not to mention the plethora of social media platforms that they can be on, some of which you may be unfamiliar with.
This boundless access to information and online communities can certainly have parents anxious about how they can keep their children safe, and leave them hoping for some sort of manual to follow when it comes to regulating their children’s social media usage.
One ground rule that you may wish to establish right at the start before any electronic device is placed in your child’s hands, is that you, as the parents, have the right to check on their device usage at any time. This would include messaging platforms like Telegram or WhatsApp, and also social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. This may sound draconian, and may feel uncomfortable for some parents as they may feel that it violates their children’s privacy, but should this ground rule be established, you will be able to monitor your child more closely, and in that way, keep them safe.
Keeping that in mind, let us consider a few points that you may wish to discuss with your child. This is not an exhaustive list of pointers with regards to social media responsibility; however, these points are a good way to begin that conversation with your child.
#1: They have control over their feed
Remind them to keep in mind that they are in control of what is on their feed, and that they are in control of the content that they see. Because of the way social media relies on algorithms, the more your child follows, or hits “like” on certain types of posts or accounts, the same sorts of posts and accounts will be recommended to them or shown on their feed next time. Add to that the nature of these apps, which are to keep you engaged on their platforms as long as possible through instant notifications when someone they follow posts a picture, for example, or posting photos and videos. It can get addictive, and it is very easy to be sucked into a cycle of posting, following certain types of people, and liking posts.
Talk to your children, and tell them that not everything and everyone is healthy to follow. Teach your children to recognise warning signs when they use social media – do they feel anxious, or disturbed when looking at a certain person or company’s account? Do they feel a loss of self-esteem, perhaps, or feel a need to buy a certain product? For instance, some influencers set very unhealthy tones that promote a certain body type, and various products and services to achieve that body type.
Remind them to cleanse their feeds periodically, and to purge them of anything unsettling or unhealthy. Tell them that they may discuss anything and any sort of content that they come across on social media with you. This will give them the comfort and safety of knowing that you, as their parent, will be around to guide them.
#2: The internet is forever
It may be tempting to post that rant about that teacher that they dislike, and to use strong and offensive language to do so. It may also be tempting to post themselves doing a silly dare or challenge, so that their friends can react to their post by liking them.
Those are just two examples of the sort of things that may seem like an alright and an “in the moment” thing for them to post right now, but remind your child that whatever they post today may come back to haunt them in the future. Nothing on the internet is ever truly lost, even when they think they have deleted all traces of it. There may be a screenshot that someone’s taken and saved, for example.
Show them articles of politicians and celebrities getting called out for the language they employed, or the opinions that they had (and tweeted!) long ago. The model and host Chrissy Teigen is an example of that – her posts, from long ago, that were perceived as bullying another celebrity were unearthed and shared, and she had to go on a hiatus for a while as the saga blew over. Upon her return to work and to social media, she had to post a public apology for her behaviour in the past.
Your child’s online reputation should also be carefully guarded and curated, as potential employers may search for their digital footprint online before hiring them. Remind your child that what seems fun or necessary now, may not be the case 10 years down the road.
#3: Be careful who they talk to
This is a particularly important and worrying aspect of social media – the fact that anyone can follow or request to follow your children on their social media accounts, even if these accounts are private accounts.
As a rule of thumb, advise your child not to add anyone they do not actually know in real life (and even then, it never hurts to be wary of who is on their friends list). Other than being careful about what they post, warn your child that some adults prey on children and youth. However, even their own peers can have malicious intentions, or be thoughtless in their actions.
Speak seriously to your child about never agreeing to requests such as sending indecent photos, for example, no matter how close they believe they are with the other person. There have been many cases where such pictures have been shared on the internet, causing much shame and embarrassment for the subjects of these photos.
Tell your child that if at any point they feel uncomfortable or disturbed by the direction that a particular conversation is going, they should approach you to discuss what to do next. Promise them that you will not get angry or upset (and follow through!) – they must feel safe sharing with you.
Of course, the ground rule as mentioned at the beginning of the article is that the parent should at all times have access to their child’s electronic devices, and that the parent should periodically check on their child’s online activities. Hopefully, such conversations will be caught before they get too intense.
#4: Do not engage in bullying behaviour, and report any instances of being bullied
An unfortunate reality is that bullying can happen at any time, and to anyone. It is all too easy to say hurtful things to other people online, especially if you are using an anonymous account. Conversely, it is also very easy for this to happen to your child (even adults get bullied online!) People will say all sorts of things from behind a keyboard that they would not say in person.
Remind your child that bullying is not acceptable behaviour on their part. They should not engage in hurtful or harmful language and behaviour to anyone in real life or online. However, the opposite is also true – it is not acceptable that they be the targets of bullying too. If they feel hurt, upset, or even threatened by what is said against them online, they should consult you to work out the next course of action.
Hopefully these pointers have helped you think about how you will talk to your child about their social media use! Remember that social media is a double-edged sword, which can uplift and reaffirm someone one day, and then turn around and cut them the next. One cannot be too careful in how they approach their social media use.