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It is Never Too Early to Prepare Kids for Social Media

We live in a world where social media is the norm. It is often the first place for communication for just about everyone. Most schools and sporting organisations will use social media as their main source of communication. The term, "Facebook friends" has become something that is well understood as a way to describe a relationship. This area of our lives has become so ingrained and yet we don't start to educate our kids until just before they are legally old enough to start using social media. The legal age for most social media apps is 13 years old, and while there is proactive education in most schools for children aged 11-12 years, some studies have shown that a massive 3/4 of children aged 10-12 are already use social media. My concern is that we are getting in too late.

The majority of children that I work with regularly are aged 5-8 years old. You would think that social media is not really an issue for these kids. But if you ask them, they know what Facebook and Instagram are, a lot of them have made TikTok videos, with and without their parent's knowledge. When we look at the dangers of social media it is terrifying to think how little education we are giving our kids. We wouldn't let them cross the road without our guidance and yet it seems that some kids are thrown in the "busy highway" of social media and expected to keep safe.

When I talk to parents about educating our kids about social media there seems to be two extreme responses. There is the strict, "my child won't be on social media" response and the "they are fine, it's just social" response. Unfortunately I don't think either of these responses will help our kids manage the social media driven world that we live in. As much as we want to keep our kids safe from the dangers of social media, it is unrealistic to think that they won't be influenced by it even if we do manage to stop them having an account. In some cases keeping teenagers off social media all together can actually cause harm. If most of their peers are communicating this way then they could become isolated and ostracized by not having access. Then again, giving free rein to a child/teenager who has an underdeveloped ability for impulse control and problem-solving, could have devastating consequences.

One of the main reasons why this is so difficult for parents to navigate is that we have never experienced the world that our kids are growing up in. Sure, we may have experienced bullying, feeling left out and many of the difficulties that comes with growing up. But we weren't bombarded with the constant connection to the world at large. Most of us, when we came home we were safe from the pressures of the day. There was no cyber-bullying, no concerns about how many likes you received and while there has always been issues with body image, we didn't have filters and the ever increasing pressure to look "sexy". So how do we educate our kids in a world that we don't really understand and when should we start?

Lets Start Young

I am definitely not advocating for young children to be on social media, but even toddlers are using the internet to watch their favorite shows, play games or making video calls. You may have all the parental controls and be supervising, but that doesn't mean that we don't need to explain the dangers. Using a device feels safe, because it is in your home, but potentially there are risks of letting things into your home that there is no way you would normally let in. Dr Kristy Goodwin says there are two main cyber-safety concerns facing parents of preschoolers- content and contact. The major cyber-safety content issues facing our preschoolers are access to developmentally inappropriate content such as scary or violent content, pornography and contact concerns include access to unknown people and pedophiles. When children are as young as 3 years old you can explain that there are rules to using devices which will set a foundation for social media later in life. There are good and bad things on the internet and to stay safe, just like having rules to cross the road etc there are rules for internet.

  • A parent or grown up needs to be close by. No parental controls will work better than your presence. Let them know that they can't be in their room alone with a device, you need to be close enough to check on them. Really this is no different to most parent's rules when you are at the park to keep them safe, you need to see them and check that they are okay.

  • Tell someone if something comes up that makes you uncomfortable. Kids need to learn from an early age that you are the person to go to if they see something that is inappropriate. The last thing you want is for your child to be scared to tell you something in fear of "getting in trouble". Make it clear that you are there to help.

  • You can get lost in the internet, so don't press buttons you don't know. It is so easy to end up on sites that are not appropriate. Kids need to learn that to stay safe they need to stay on the site you have approved.

  • Never talk to people you don't know. Just like we teach children not to go with strangers on the street, we need to explain that the same rules apply on the internet.

  • The need for privacy. It is a good idea to start to explain the permanency of the internet. Children aren't developmentally able to foresee the problems associated with sharing personal information, but you can start modelling the importance of keeping information private. Once information is on the internet it is open to the world so you don't share where you live, what school you go to, or other personal information.

  • There is healthy and unhealthy screen time. Just like food, when it comes to screen consumption, we need to be mindful. There are some great resources on the internet. If it safe, educational, age-appropriate, supporting their development and/or developing their language skills then it healthy screen time. Remember even healthy screen time should have limits. Make sure these are screen free zones in the house, especially meal times and when family time is most important.

Social Media Specifically

Social media can be a great way to connect with family and friends, be informed and share information. But we often forget that there are social skills and developmental skills that are easier for adults usually making social media a fairly positive experience. However, we know that the part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that allows kids to manage their high-order thinking skills needed to use when engaged with social media is not fully developed until our 20s. For example, teenagers may not have the impulse-control skills they need to decide not to post a nasty comment on Facebook, or share a rude photo on Instagram. Just like we teach our kids what is appropriate social skills in face to face relationships, we need to teach them the social skills of social media.

When you feel that your teenager is ready for social media, like anything, there needs to be rules. Don't just write a list and enforce them. Sit down with your child and come up with the rules together. The more you get them involved in the process, the more likely they will be happy to follow them.

  • Set rules about WHEN, WHERE and WITH WHOM your child can use social media. Social media never ends, there are always notifications and constant information. This can make it hard to switch off and very addictive, so have set times. You also want to be clear with whom your kids are friends with. You don't want them linking up with strangers, this opens the door for possible grooming from predators.

  • Keep social media out of bedrooms. Research shows that most cyber-bullying happens at night. It is thought that this is because at night, our logical brain (prefrontal cortex) is less active and our emotional brain (limbic brain) becomes more active. Therefore, we are more likely to say and do things that we will regret tomorrow, so discourage social media use at night.

  • Keep having discussions about what they’re sharing, liking or commenting on. Help your child to understand what sort of digital footprint they’re leaving on social media. It’s so important to continue to stay involved with your child’s social media life because you want your child to feel that you’re involved and that they can come to you if/when something happens that they don't know how to handle.

  • Children aren't able to really grasp the magnitude and permanence of social media. Have them ask themselves some questions before they post anything online. 1. Would you be happy if your Mum/Dad/grandparents/principal saw this post? 2. Would you be willing to stand up in front of a crowd of people and share this post (which is basically what happens when we share it online)

  • If comments that someone has made upset you. Stop before you respond. When we act out of impulse we rarely make good decisions.

Social media isn't going away and for all the negatives there are positive if we guide our kids through it. Just like every other learning in life, it is up to us as parents to guide our kids through social media too. The problem is that this is not something that we lived through as children and understanding the impact is hard to grasp. But as we work through it with our children and learn together it can be a positive experience for everyone.

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