Alex’s parents didn’t realize how much their 15-year-old’s use of social media was affecting their family until they had to take her phone away.
“She was on her phone every second, communicating with friends and ignoring the rest of us,” said Alex’s mom, Beth. “She didn’t really have a life except online.”
One night Alex posted a Facebook message that brought the police to their door and Beth knew something had to change. She took Alex’s phone away completely for a few weeks, then let her have an hour of supervised time each day to check in with her friends. The difference in Alex was almost immediate.
“She sits with us and talks with us just like she did when she was younger,” Beth said. “I didn’t even realize we had lost her, but I’m so proud of how she’s learning to take more responsibility. I just wish I had known earlier what I know now.”
Technology has changed a lot in the last 20 years, but more importantly, the way people interact with technology has changed, according to Tommy McGregor, a Montgomery-based youth ministry consultant and author of “Selfie: A Parent’s Guide to Social Media.” Another change is the pressure to allow even younger kids to have access to smartphones and social media apps. At some point, every child will say, “My friends all have it,” and every parent will have to decide whether to say yes to the latest device or app, McGregor said.
In the early stages, the Internet was a source of information. Users would search using specific keywords and a search engine would generate a list of online sources. There was no interaction between parties, just an exchange of information, McGregor writes.
However, as more and more people got Internet access, developers began to create ways for users to communicate with each other. Popular social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram emerged and all had a similar mission — to allow users to “connect” and “share” their interests and their ideas online. Facebook was actually developed by college students for college students and initially was open only to those who had school email addresses. When Facebook opened up to everyone, teens started using it less and less, McGregor said.
“When mom, dad, aunt, uncle and the neighbor next door all got on Facebook, kids moved on,” McGregor said. “Kids move on to the next thing, claiming it as theirs until they no longer feel like it’s theirs.”
The ever-changing options are why parents must talk about social media with their children early and often, McGregor said. The conversation usually starts in earnest when your child’s friends get a cell phone, but it must continue because of the intense importance technology and social media play in the lives of teens especially.
Difference in adults and teens
“Adults use Facebook to keep up with college friends and see vacation pictures, but kids and teens view social media as an extension of their community,” he said. “The average adult could give up social media and all they would be missing was something to do with their time. That’s not the case with teens. For them, it’s how they see themselves.”
Social media can be a positive experience, according to the website KidsHealth.org. Social media can help them stay connected with friends and family, get involved with a cause or nonprofit they care about, enhance their creativity through sharing of music and art and meet and interact with others who share similar interests.
However, spending too much time on social media can have negative consequences as well. KidsHealth.org reports that “researchers have noted something called ‘Facebook depression,’ which can come from constantly comparing oneself to others’ slickly presented profiles. By seeing how many ‘friends’ others have and viewing pictures of them having fun, kids may feel worse about themselves or feel they don’t measure up to their peers.”
Parents want to learn more about social media so they can keep their kids safe online, McGregor said, but they don’t use the technology as their kids do. App developers aren’t creating apps with parents in mind either.
“Kids have a whole little world on their handheld devices, and app developers make it difficult for mom and dad to find out about it,” McGregor said.
The result is that parents often know very little about something that is extremely important to their children, McGregor said. When problems like cyberbullying or sexting arise, parents are often caught unaware and don’t know how to help.
One of the reasons McGregor wrote “Selfie” was to provide a tool for parents who want to learn more about Internet safety when it comes to social media. Though the social media world is constantly changing, parents who are aware of the technology and who set limits from the beginning can guide their children through the online world, teaching them responsibility and boundaries early on, McGregor said.
McGregor calls these kinds of limits “nonnegotiables.”
“For a child just starting out, parents need to set some basic rules that must be followed. The child has to have permission to use or download certain apps. They can’t share passwords with their friends. Parents must know passwords. You don’t have social media accounts we don’t know about,” McGregor said.
Setting boundaries is an opportunity for parents to disciple their children and teach them basic biblical principles, like honoring your mother and father, for example.
“If as a parent, I tell you you’re not allowed to have a Snapchat account, and you’re doing it behind my back, you’re not honoring me,” McGregor said. “We want our children to get to a place of ownership in their faith, and this is one area where we help them do the things they need to do to grow and mature spiritually.”
Simple steps like keeping computers in public areas of the home, avoiding laptops and smartphones in bedrooms and no devices at the dinner table are good starting points, according to KidsHealth.org.
Learn warning signs
The American Academy of Pediatrics also advises parents to learn the warning signs of trouble, which might include skipping activities, meals and homework for social media; weight loss or gain or a drop in grades. Behavior changes often indicate a problem and parents should be aware of the changes and intervene quickly to avoid dangerous consequences down the road.
“Social media is like a match. When it is lit it can give light to everyone in the room, or it can set fire to the house and burn it to the ground,” McGregor writes. “There are some social media platforms that everyone should stay away from, and there are some people who should stay away from social media. As parents it is up to us to know the difference and to guide our kids toward safety online.”
According to the Pew Research Center’s “2013 Teens, Social Media, and Privacy study,” teens are sharing a lot of very private and personal information on social media, including:
- 92 percent share their real name
- 82 percent post their birth date
- 71 percent tell the city they live in
- 71 percent post the school they attend
- 84 percent post their personal interests, such as movies, music or books they like
- 62 percent share a relationship status
- 53 percent make their email addresses public
- 20 percent share their cell phone numbers online
- 24 percent post videos of themselves
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