Last week was the first edition of my new “Talking About Things that Matter” where I talked about technology – setting screen time limits, making wise choices & protecting our kids. You can read all about that here.
One piece of the technology puzzle that I didn’t really get a chance to dive into in that post was the world that is social media.

I felt that social media – its wonders, its blunders and how to safely get our kids engaged with it  – was deserving of a post entirely its own. So, let me start with a confession before I dive into this post –

I am not good with balance when it comes to social media.

I spend way too much time on Instagram, Facebook & Pinterest. I find myself mindlessly refreshing my feed for absolutely no reason, and I don’t know why. I am way more prone to think social media is beneficial than it is harmful, and I overuse it. In fact, just as I sat down to write this post, I deleted a bunch of social media apps from my phone – including Facebook – to try to be more proactive.

My own life is a testament to the fact that screens are more addictive than we think they are. I go through phases where I do really well & say NO to social media binging, and then dive right back in mindlessly.

I say all this to say – I am well aware of the power of social media. I see its benefits as I connect with friends from around the world, build ministry connections, and honestly – spend a lot of time laughing at memes & posts that are downright hilarious. I see why kids love it – why they want to use it and what makes it appealing. I also see its downfalls – the way it disconnects us from people in real life, the way it tempts us to create a ‘highlight reel’ of our lives, and the way we can open up way too much personal and private information to strangers.

And, I say that as an adult.
An adult who has spent more of my life without social media than with it.
An adult who can well remember a world where none of these networks existed.

Our kids though, they don’t know that world.
For them, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and whatever other platforms they are into, well, they have always been a part of their world. They have always seen their parents posting and scrolling. A world without social media? Hard to imagine!

While then, the most natural thing for them may be to set up accounts on all the social media platforms they can think of, we cannot let that happen mindlessly or without first, having the tough conversations. Social media – regardless of how “used to it” we have become – has real nuances and dangers that we need to be talking about.

So, here are some thoughts to guide the conversation on social media, how we model its usage, and how we let our kids use it.

Set an age limit.

While I do believe there are many negotiables, nuances and grey areas when it comes to social media, age limits aren’t one. And, I’m not the only one who thinks so. Governments around the world have legislated Children’s Online Protection & Privacy Acts to prevent social media networks and websites from collecting information about children under the age of 13 without parental consent.

This is why age limits on social media exist. It’s not simply because 13 is a magical age, but because when you create a social media account, networks and companies are tracking your personal data. Privacy is simply an illusion. Like it or not, it’s the truth. As adults, this is something we must be aware of and make wise decisions about when we post to social media. However, kids’ privacy shouldn’t be invaded in this way. We are responsible to protect our children – no matter how commonplace all this may seem in today’s world.

I do believe that social media should be steered away from until 13, but I know that for many of you reading this, it may be too late! Your kids already have accounts – whether with your consent, fake birthdates and emails, or however it happened – and they’re not yet 13. Let me encourage you, accounts can always be deleted. I think this should be the case with younger children – 100% of the time.

However, if your kids are preteens (10-12), I do think that with careful supervision they can use social media successfully. Do your research about privacy, and bring it into the conversations with your kids when they ask about social media. Helping them understand why limits exist is important, and there are some great resources out there that can do just that! I’ll link up to them at the end of the article.

Be in the know.

Parents, you need to be in the know about social media networks to be effective in this conversation! While it can be overwhelming and you may just want to bury your head in the sand, you can’t! You have to know what’s out there, what’s popular, and how these networks work. I know many parents who won’t let their kids create an account on a social media site until they have one – and I honestly LOVE that.

Bringing knowledge into a conversation makes you seem so much more credible to your kids. Understanding the ins-and-outs (or at least the basics) of platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, YouTube, Pinterest, VSCO, Music.ly, and whatever else gets created tomorrow is important for parents.

PS: This may also be a good time to mention that many popular games and apps also serve as social networking sites. Games like Fortnite or other seemingly harmless apps (especially online games) provide an opportunity for kids to chat & interact with people – both ones they know and ones they don’t! Be sure to familiarize yourself with those features and keep a close eye on your kids usage!

Know the “why” behind their social media usage.

We all know that a lot of the reason kids desire to use social media is because “everyone is doing it.” Take the time to dig into your kids’ motives behind wanting to create an account on a particular platform. Understanding their perspective matters. The digital world is not going away.

Hearing their understanding of popular social media networks, why they want to use them & why it’s so important to them gives you credibility with your kids. It helps them know you’re in their corner, and your decisions are not merely arbitrary or uncaring.

Knowing the why can also help you make decisions together.

Does your kid want to use Instagram because they want to follow particular celebrities? Maybe this is a time to have a conversation about if those celebrities are people they should follow, and why or why not. If there’s a celebrity that is appropriate for them to check in with, why not let them use your account or device to do it until you feel they’re old enough?

Maybe your child wants to use social media because they have a cool business idea? I’ve seen this happening more & more frequently! This could be an opportunity for a partnership – they can make the posts and create the username, but you hold the password and monitor it all.

Set solid ground rules.

Ground rules for social media really matter. While social media can be incredibly beneficial and an awesome tool, the risks are paramount! That can’t be overstated. While we can’t operate in fear, we can operate in wisdom – and that means setting down some important ground rules. Here are some I think should be on the table for every family:

  • Private vs. public accounts: I’m a firm advocate of strong privacy settings on every social media platform – especially for kids and teens. Their Instagram accounts should be private, Facebook profiles should have tight privacy settings, and other accounts should be as well. You should be proactive in making sure this is the case.
  • No secrets here!: While I do think that there is absolutely a place for privacy and autonomy in the lives of our children (especially as they reach adolescence), I don’t believe social media should be one of these areas. Parents should never be blocked or hidden from kids’ social media accounts. You should know passwords, be their first friend and follower, and should be able to ask “Hey, can I check out your phone?” at any time. I’m not talking about making comments on every photo they like, goofy picture they post or friending all their friends. I’m not talking about helicopter parenting. I’m talking about protecting your kids by being present on their social media platforms.
  • Friends online should be friends IRL (in real life): I am a huge advocate that the only friends and followers kids have on their social media platforms should be people they know in real life. While it may be tempting to accept requests from someone you have a mutual friend with or who looks really awesome, you cannot exercise too much caution. When broaching this with your kids, explain – “Would you tell a stranger at the mall or a restaurant what you had for dinner? Where you’re hanging out tonight? Who your best friends are? Accepting them on social media is like doing the same thing.”

There are no doubt other important things that can be discussed under ground rules – that will be unique to your family. I think kids should be involved in this conversation – answer their questions, allow for vibrant (and heated!) discussion, and be open about your stance. In the end though, rules for safety can’t be negotiable. Be open, hear your kids out, but stand firm!

Provide alternatives.

If you’re saying NO to social media networks – whether all of them or a particular one – at this stage in your child’s life, it’s a great time to provide alternatives! Just because they can’t have Instagram or Snapchat doesn’t mean they need to miss out on all the fun. In fact, they can be trendsetters amongst their friends by using something completely different!

There are actually some great ways to connect through apps that are kid-friendly and will give you ease of mind. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Why not get your kids an account on the Bible App? Tell them to invite some friends too, and get them on a kid-friendly reading plan! They can get streaks, create custom Bible verse images, and discuss what they’re learning with one another. PLUS they’re reading the Word – what could be better than that?
  • After some research, I just downloaded an app called Mazu to screen it. It’s a kid-friendly social media app that doesn’t collect data, asks kids to take a “four-way test” before posting anything, check out interest-based posts, and chat with friends and family on the app (after their parents give permission). I think it would be a great starting app to learn the concepts of social media in a safe environment!
  • Disney’s Club Penguin has proven itself to be a favourite of kids and parents for a very long time. While it will definitely appeal to the younger kids in your house (maybe not so much your preteens), it provides fun & peace of mind for parents.

Keep an eye on “likes.”

We live in a world that is crazed by the amount of likes we get on a post. I have had many conversations where adults and teens alike admit to deleting a post if it didn’t get the “likes” they thought it would. In today’s world, likes and followers equate to worth, beauty and popularity.

Beyond safety, social media can have a very real effect on the way your kids view themselves. While likes are fun to get, they don’t measure the things that are truly great about your kids – their sense of humour, their empathy and compassion, intelligence or who they are as a person. Be sure to have this conversation before launching social media accounts with your kids, and have them regularly thereafter. It is so easy to get caught up in the spiral of online popularity (and even celebrity – a kid sitting in their living room in a small town can become an Instagram star) that kids and teens need to be constantly reminded that their online presence and popularity isn’t a determinant of their worth. Maybe you need to be reminded of that too.

Phew! I know that was a long post. However, I’m convinced that we must be vigilant and willing to talk about social media in today’s world with our kids. It’s not going away, it’s getting more popular all the time, and our kids are using it, and will use it.

We need to be willing to tackle the tough topic of social media with our kids – for their benefit and ours.

Some More Resources to Check Out:
Apps to Watch Out for in 2019 (Common Sense Media)
5 Tips to Help Your Child Safely Navigate Social Media (FOSI)
How to Reduce Anxiety Around Letting Your Kids Use Social Media (FOSI)
Do-it-Yourself House Rules for Online Privacy (OPC of Canada)
Thinkuknow.co.uk (An initiative of CEOP – great to start the convo with young kids)
Digital Footprint & Privacy Online Videos (CommonCraft)
Why It’s Never Too Early to Teach Your Child Good Social Media Habits (Parenting.com)

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