I mentioned last week that I’d been to a meeting at my son’s school that talked about the current state of teen social media usage. One of the more interesting, and somewhat disheartening things that happened at the meeting was what I can politely call “concern” and more snarkily call “fear and panic” coming from one of the parents. When talking about Instagram, he asked whether kids know about not geotagging their pictures so that the wrong people cannot find them. When talking about Facebook and Twitter, he asked about the bullying that goes on there. When talking about phones and tablets, he described kids as being addicted to their devices, that they shake and get upset if it is taken away from them (thus showing all the clinical signs of addiction). I initially just did a mental shrug and waited for the conversation to get back on track. But then other parents began saying things like, “Thank you!” (emphatically!) for bringing these important issues up. I saw how fear and panic spreads among parents who are unfamiliar with technology or who base their knowledge on what they hear on the Six O’Clock News (“Coming up at six, are your children downloading drugs from the Googles? Up first, some pictures of a cute puppy!”) The solution is education and some good old fashioned common sense.
Parents today came of age in a time when computer and Internet use was left to the geeks. Now that it has all gone mainstream, these same people who avoided these things are getting phones, tablets, and computers but do not have the depth of knowledge, experience, or understanding that those of us who have been doing this for decades have. Facebook and a few other apps, and, before that, America Online, are all they really know. This lack of knowledge creates the classic situation of fear of the unknown. And this is compounded by the fact that their kids know so much more about it than they do because they are growing up with it all.
Because so many parents know so little, they fear so much. And because the media (largely filled with the same people with the same fears) reinforce both the ignorance and the fears, a negative feedback loop is created. The solution is, of course, education. I know it is hard to tell someone who is as busy as today’s typical parent is that they have to learn more about something but it is a responsibility of parents to do so. By not understanding, they cannot properly guide their children. Worse, they may simply just refuse to let their kids use these things because of this ignorance and potentially remove an essential part of their growing up into a modern, digital culture.
There will be some natural road blocks, of course, Not everyone can really get comfortable with some of the new technologies, especially if they have had little prior exposure. For these folks, the antidote is to at least be informed. They should know what the real risks and issues are and know where to get good information when they come across a new-to-them situation. (I humbly submit that, in time, this site should become exactly that.)
Going back to the specific fears raised by this one parent, I want to take each of the three and examine them more closely.
Regarding the geolocation aspect, I’ve run into this before. When I was a Cub Scout Den Leader a few years ago (was my son ever that little?) there was a lot of worry about putting pictures of the kids on our website. While I agreed that we not put any names with any pictures, I thought it silly to never put any pictures online. The standard fear was some creep online, seeing a picture of one of the boys would find out who he was and where he lived, and then something awful might happen. While I am sure there are such awful people out there, there are two easy counters to this argument: First, I think the danger is much greater in one’s own neighborhood. Most predators take the path of least resistance and thinking that someone is going to do all that detective work and then travel is unlikely (not impossible, just unlikely). Second, the vast majority of predation is perpetrated by relatives or other people the child already knows. In either case, the real answer is the same: teach your children to be smart. Teach them what to do if they are approached. Teach them what kinds of things strangers might ask them to do. Teach them to never be alone with a stranger, etc. In other words, teach them common sense. Teens posting pictures and leaving the geolocation turned on can be an issue but let’s not overreact and make it the only problem, or even the most important problem. If we do, then we ignore the larger issue of educating our kids to be smart and safe.
Regarding the bullying aspect, a lot has been written about this but I think the best counter was the two high school students who came to present the apps they use to the parents at the meeting. They said that, sure, sometimes people say some mean things online but it’s usually out of ignorance or due to their attempt at sarcasm or irony not coming through in their writing. Systemic bullying hasn’t been an issue of note. It helps that the teachers are involved and ask the students to keep them in the loop about things like this. Again, it does happen but the incidence is far lower than we are lead to believe. And, again, the solution is education. Parents need to be aware and they need to teach their kids how to handle bullying in any form (online or offline). In fact, bullying online can be actually easier to handle because a screen capture can be made of any online bullying so that even if offending posts are deleted, there is still evidence of the bullying. In the physical world, you rarely have that kind of proof and accusations of bullying turn into he said-she said situations.
Finally, regarding addiction to the phones and to being online, there are a number of different answers here. While I am sure (as with everything else in life) there are some who are addicted and who freak out if they cannot access things at times, the solution (as with everything else in life) is to teach moderation. Children need boundaries and solid rules. They do not need to be draconic rules but some that are quite straightforward. For example, in our family if one of us is talking to our son, he should pay attention to us and put the phone down. If he is in the middle of something with someone online, he is to tell them he has to go for a few and then speak to us and not respond if his phone buzzes. When he is doing homework and when we are having dinner he is also not to be socializing with anyone online. Some families go farther and require electronics to get turned over to parents an hour before bed so there is some offline time.
There is another side to this issue. All of the negative reactions appear to assume that there is something fundamentally less real about online socializing than real world socializing. Parents tell them to get off the phone and engage in the real world and don’t understand why this upsets their teens. My son called me on this recently and he was right to do so. From his perspective, there is nothing at all more or less real about his online and offline friends. In fact, in many cases, his online friends (even those he has never met in person) are as real as real can be for him. We live in a neighborhood where, through a twist of demographic fate, there are no kids his age who live nearby. His school friends are miles away and friends from other activities are similarly far away. On a day to day basis, his at-home socializing (what was, for my generation, going out and playing with the kids down the street) is this online world. To refer to his online interactions as not being real is to send a really bad message to him and invalidate his entire social life. We do tell him that he needs to give priority to people in the same physical place as he is and to treat video chats as if that person was physically coming into our house. In other words, ask our permission first. (And we also make sure we wear bathrobes now if we aren’t dressed for the day yet. Just in case.)
My point in all of this is not to deny that there are problems and downsides to teen use of social media. As with everything, it is the job of parents to help their children become citizens of the world, including the online world. This means that it falls to parents to learn as much as they can or at least be as informed as possible. It also means that the usual rules of social interactions and personal safety apply to online and offline behavior equally. Teach your children how to be self aware, polite, smart, safe, and to be good, empathetic and compassionate people. It will benefit them offline and on.