Do you have a student that is about to start middle school? Or even high school? Are you constantly being pestered to buy her a phone (a real smartphone…not the iPod Touch for babies)? Or to let her have a Facebook page or an Instagram account? Because all of her friends do, Mom, and she is the only one without it! What happened to peer pressure revolving around Guess jeans and Dooney & Burke purses? Let’s face it, as our kids get older, what they want is phones and social media.
Our kids live in a different world than we did, with a 3-year-old deftly navigating through touch screens and MineCraft games. They have only known a digital world, whereas some of us had to Google what Twitter and Instagram are in order to keep up with the lingo.
Whether we approve or not, social media and the Internet will be an integral part of our children’s lives as they become teenagers and young adults.
I’ve blogged about kids and electronics and how the relationship between the two is something we battle constantly in our house and something I have taken up as a vigilant cause for action. I strongly feel if my husband and I have made the choice to buy them electronic devices, it is our responsibility to monitor the usage and content of these very closely. I have the reputation of being the “Queen of No!” in my house; when Dude started asking about when he could get a real phone, be able to text, and have a Facebook account, my answer to our fourth grader was, “Never!”
However, my Irish Catholic upbringing response of not until you are out of my house was put away when my husband and I attended our school’s PTO meeting last February. We had the pleasure of listening to Jonathan Eades speak on “Establishing Healthy Boundaries for Your Child’s Media Use and Screen Time.” I
drug brought my husband along so I could have some support when chastising him about his lenient tendencies with the kids and their electronics. Eades is the Head of School at local St. Mary’s Hall and earned his Master’s Degree from Columbia University, with a focus in the online trends of teenagers in our country. He is passionate about the topic and speaks to groups of parents in an effort to provide information about all aspects of media use and screen time. He makes a point of saying he is not an alarmist and instead provides eye-opening hard statistics, such as the link with increased screen time and decreased reading time for children.
Where Eades really got my attention though, and somehow managed to change my draconian way of thinking on kids and social media, was his discussion of our “digital footprint.” Our digital footprint has been described as a virtual paper trail that follows us forever. While I am very cautious about my own digital footprint, it had never occurred to me that this is something that needs to be explained to our kids. Now. Eades said it is never too early to talk about the digital footprint with our kids, and boy is he right. We focus too much on the negative things they may come across while watching You Tube, or who out there in the internet world might be trying to communicate with our kids. Yes, these concerns are valid, but as our kids get into middle school and high school, we need to realize that they themselves will prove be their own worst enemy with social media.
Eades introduced the idea of colleges (and even elite high schools such as St. Mary’s Hall) doing their diligence in the admissions process and checking the Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, and Twitter feeds of applicants. He pointed to a November 9, 2013 New York Times article entitled, “They Loved Your GPA, Then Saw Your Tweets.” My own husband has checked out Facebook pages of young associates applying to work at his firm and he made adverse decisions based on what he saw. As a trial lawyer, I know that one’s Facebook page (when left open to the public) is a goldmine of evidence for character attacks. But it absolutely did not occur to me that these lessons needed to be TAUGHT to our own children as part of their life education.
Eades emphasizes that students and their parents need to realize that with the emergence of social media dominance, you have to be your own PR manager for college, fraternities/sororities, and potential employers. He has rescinded scholarship offers after seeing something controversial or inappropriate on a Facebook page.
Kids, without help from adults, are not going to understand the lasting impact that social media (and all Internet use) can have on their lives. Dude recently said, in his ongoing quest for some social media access, that he knew he couldn’t have Facebook because people put really bad things on there and could send you bad messages. I then realized that we had failed him up to that point in explaining the pros and cons of social media and the Internet. Our fear mongering wasn’t actually educating him. I replied, “Dude, if someone wants to say bad things, they can write it on a piece of paper and give to you at school. They can send it to you in an email. In a text. They don’t need Facebook to do it. You have to realize that all of your choices have lasting consequences, whether on paper or on the Internet.” I went on to explain to him that when you send something over the Internet like in an email, or even send someone a text, there could be a permanent paper trail of that…forever and ever amen. You can screenshot a text. You can forever save an email. You can screenshot Facebook.
After much discussion and reflection, my husband and I decided that Dude was old enough to attempt a test of his maturity with an Instagram account in order to allow him to dip his big toe in the deep waters of social media. I knew our lengthy discussions with him were at least sinking in when it took him three days to come up with a screen name that was appropriate and safe, but still “cool” to him. We talked about how this screen name would be with him for a looong time and his future employers could see it one day, so we all agreed that “ZombieKiller089” might not seem so great when he was 18. We talked about how now-funny pictures of may come back to haunt him. His account is private, of course, and his only followers to date are family members. I regularly stalk his account to monitor him. But right now he’s only 11 and he was thrilled to post pictures of the Statue of Liberty on our recent vacation. So while I know the crazy teen years are just around the corner and middle school is only a year away, I feel really good about the fact that we have discussed social media early (and often) and we can slowly wade together into the digital era.