Parenting in a Digital World

Parenting in a Digital World

By Nicole M. Young, MSW

I'm dependent on technology. Some days, I spend more time with my phone than I do with my kids (don't judge - they're in school all day). I do the majority of my personal and work-related reading on the internet. In fact, I can't remember the last time I read a whole book (much to the dismay of my mom, who works in a bookstore). And I know my way around social media, which just means I know how to post, like, retweet and pin pretty pictures.

But despite my love for technology, I hate seeing my kids' eyes glued to their screens. And while I enjoy posting pictures of my kids on Facebook, the thought of my kids broadcasting their lives on social media makes me nervous. The "Logical Me" knows I have the parenting tools to teach my children how to be safe in this digital age. The "Emotional Me" just wants to scream, "No!" and go back to reading articles on the internet about the dangers of the digital age.

This monthly column provides tips for anyone who is raising children, based on the world-renowned Triple P - Positive Parenting Program, available to families in Sonoma County. If you have a question or idea for a future column, contact Grace Harris, Parent Resources Director at graceh@calparents.org

Ask CPI

I'm not on social media, but I have friends who are. One friend recently saw a picture that my son posted on Instagram doing something inappropriate. She thinks I should talk to him about what he's posting online and how that could hurt him someday. I was shocked because I had no idea he was using social media. He's 14, but we've avoided it because of other parents' horror stories. What should I do? -       Hana

Dear Hana,

Technology has certainly changed the way we communicate, and social media has both benefits and drawbacks. The decision about whether and when kids are ready for social media will vary in each family. Here are a few tips to help you decide:

Get familiar with social media applications (apps). Many parents distrust social media because of concerns about privacy, cyberbullying, sexting, inappropriate content or the effects on emotional health. The constant - and often exaggerated - updates about people's lives often leaves kids and adults feeling excluded, inadequate, anxious or depressed. Several apps create a layer of secrecy that make it easy for people to do and say things that are hurtful to others or put themselves at risk. Apps such as Yik Yak, Whisper, Kik, and ask.fm allow users to remain anonymous, while apps such as SnapChat create a false sense of security that risky photos and videos disappear after being sent and can't be saved by the receiver. Several of these apps are known for being used to bully others or exchange sexually explicit photos with peers - or strangers!

But not all social media apps are "bad," and not everyone posts inappropriate or hurtful things. The more you know about social media, the more prepared you'll be to talk with your son. Read articles, talk to your friends and their kids, or join a social networking site to get firsthand experience.

Talk with your teen. Ask your son what he knows and what interests him about social media. Share what you've learned about the positive and risky aspects of social media. Ask him what he's noticed among his peers, and what he would do if someone were being cyberbullied or engaging in risky behaviors. Listen closely and stay calm even if you hear answers that surprise or worry you. Having a calm discussion now will let him know he can come to you if there are problems later. His answers will also tell you whether he's ready to follow rules about social media and do "the right thing," even if it's not the popular thing.

Agree on rules and expectations. Discuss which apps he can use and which ones are off limits. Define the difference between posting things that are funny and harmless versus hurtful or dangerous to himself or others. Discuss how you'll monitor his social media activity and what will happen if he's using it inappropriately. Strive to find a balance between reassuring yourself that he's safe and giving him the freedom to have an online social life. 

Final Thoughts: There's a saying, "Knowledge is power." This is particularly true about social media. The more you know, the more you can teach your son how to make safe, respectful, appropriate choices - online or in person, with or without you.