How to keep up with your kids' social media habits

By Sara Curtis on May 04, 2012
Have you heard the statistics that anyone with a cell phone today has access to more information than the President of the United States had 40 years ago? A stunning concept! Now think of all of that information being your tween’s fingertips.

A 2009 study by The Nielsen Company found:
  • The average age of a first time cell phone owner is 9.7-years-old.
  • The “information” they’re most interested in is the lives of themselves and their friends.
  • Two thirds of tween mobile phone users have taken pictures with their phones.
  • 28 percent of tween users have recorded video.
  • By age 12, 81 percent had texted on their phone.
  • More than half of the parents of the surveyed kids did not apply any parental controls to their phone.

And according to the 2011 Norton Online Family Report, 74 percent of kids using social media have found themselves in unpleasant online situations in the past.

Welcome to the new world

From social networking websites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to social gaming sites like Club Penguin and Sims, to emailing, texting and blogging, the technological vortex is enormous and it’s sucking children in at a younger and younger age.

“This is an era of very fast technological change,” says Dr. Sandra Mendlowitz, a psychologist at SickKids Hospital in Toronto. “It’s only going to explode further. It’s important for parents to really understand these new technologies as well as how their kids are using them. They need to be a part of what’s going on.”

The inherent risks of social media – that online friendships take precedence over real ones, cyber bullying, and other unhealthy or unsafe relationships – are obvious, and not unfounded says Dr. Mendlowitz. “Children are very trusting. They often don’t understand that things they post don’t ever really get deleted. Or that the person they think they’re talking to may actually be someone else. There’s no doubt, there is the potential for harm.”

Should you ban social media tools then? It’s not an ideal solution, even for tweens. “If you don’t allow your child to engage in some of these media, you are removing them from their social circle,” says Dr. Mendlowitz. “The key is to have open communication and dialogue about it, and for the parent to set limits. Saying, ‘You can’t do it at all’ is not setting a limit. It’s shutting down a relationship.”

So how do you get a handle on your child’s techno activities? First, understand the technologies yourself. And why not ask your child to explain it to you? “Children love to teach their parents things. And that puts you in a great position to open up the dialogue,” says Dr. Mendlowitz.

Don’t freak out at the thought of your 10-year-old logging on to YouTube. When used appropriately, social media can actually benefit your child. According to a 2011 study published in Pediatrics, “Engaging in various social media is a routine activity that research has shown to benefit children and adolescents by enhancing communication, social connection and even technical skills.”

How to make friends with technology

To help your tween develop a healthy relationship with social media and technology, psychologist Dr. Sandra Mendlowitz has this advice:

Be age-appropriate. Most elementary school kids don’t need cell phones. High school kids maybe, since they’re under less supervision. Having a Facebook page around age 10 is okay – provided you are a “friend” and have access to your child’s password. Nobody under 18 should be on Twitter. People don’t need to know your kids’ whereabouts 24/7.

Don’t give in to pressure. Just because their friends have cell phones doesn’t mean they should. Tell your child, ‘You can borrow mine when we’re together.’ When you say something’s not appropriate, it’s not appropriate. It’s very hard, but you need to take a firm stand.

Set time limits. For tweens, turn the computer off at 9:30 p.m. If they have a laptop in their room, take it out at night. Ideally, the computer should be in a communal family place, like the kitchen, where you can keep an eye what your child is doing on screen.

Watch your media habits. If you’re constantly texting or updating your Facebook page, how can you expect your kids to show any restraint? Keep the content of your Facebook and MySpace pages, and your Tweets, appropriate as well. A good rule of thumb? If you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see it, don’t put it online. (Pass that bit of advice on to your kids too!)

Talk about appropriate texting, emailing and online behaviour with your children. Texting and posting are ways of removing you from an emotional situation, and that’s how bullying can happen. If your child is angry with someone, encourage them to talk to them face to face. You can even role play the conversation with your child beforehand, discussing various ways to approach a heated situation and which one is best.

Originally published in ParentsCanada, April 2012

By Sara Curtis| May 04, 2012

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