By Tracey Dowdy
Setting appropriate social media boundaries isn’t as daunting a task as it may seem. By engaging your kids in an honest discussion of what social media is and the possible risks will ensure you can establish boundaries the whole family can respect. More than that, it can help your kids develop healthy online habits that will safeguard them from making common social media mistakes – mistakes that can have long term negative consequences.
Start with a conversation. No one – not you, not your kids – likes arbitrary rules with no background or information to support the decisions. Whatever age your children are, have an honest conversation about setting boundaries, what being safe online means, and what that looks like for your family. Allow give and take, listen to their concerns or arguments, work together to set up guidelines, and help your kids see how it translates to social media use.
Use common sense. You wouldn’t let your kids play unsupervised at the park or let your 4th grader hang out with a group of strangers at a party. Letting your kids surf the web or engage in social media with no restrictions is no different. Setting reasonable limits on the amount of time they can be online or limiting the sites they can access isn’t punitive, it’s protection.
Consider age and maturity. I think we can all agree maturity levels may vary significantly and have less to do with age than life experience. When my oldest daughter was 19, she’d already lived in three different states, two countries and graduated from nursing school. When I was 19, my six year old brother locked me in a trunk while I was babysitting and we were playing magician. “Age is simply a number” may be a cliché but it’s true – you know better than any arbitrary age guideline if your child will make wise choices when they’re online.
Make Privacy Settings your new best friend. Privacy settings aren’t foolproof but they are helpful and are there to safeguard users. Learn how to establish the privacy level you want on each of the social media sites your kids are using and stay up-to-date. Privacy policies are often updated or changed and it’s important to stay informed.
Teach them what’s okay to share. Teaching your kids not to share their personal information or accept friend requests from strangers is fundamental to social media safety. It’s the online equivalent of don’t take candy from strangers. Speaking of sharing, depending on your child’s age and maturity, you may want to have access to their social media accounts, but passwords should never be shared with friends.
Boundaries are important. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that the average 8 to 18-year-old in the U.S. spends almost eight hours a day using entertainment media. That may seem unreal but understand that statistic not only includes TV but texting and using social media platforms like Snapchat and Tumblr. No, not Facebook; we’re on Facebook, so that means our kids aren’t. Think about it; eight hours is a long time – far more than they’re spending with us. That’s why those boundaries are important.
Establish a Family Online Safety Contract. The best way to ensure your kids develop healthy online boundaries, especially with social media, is to establish an Online Safety Contract for your family. There are plenty of templates and samples online or you can simply create your own. By developing it together, you’ve demonstrated that you’re both committed to making it work. Including your kids in the process helps them to be personally invested and gives them ownership on a practical level. Keep in mind you’ll need to update the contract from time to time as your kids mature and need fewer restrictions.
Have a conversation, don’t lecture. Start lecturing about the dangers of social media and watch your kids’ eyes glaze over like frost on a window pane. Instead of listing all the reasons you feel something is inappropriate, ask your kids what they think. Help your kids to understand that what they post can have long term consequences. It’s important they understand that what goes online is out there for everyone to see, and that once it’s out there, it really never goes away.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is just as important online as it is in real life. Help your kids understand bullying is just as hurtful online as it is face to face and words said online have real-world consequences.
Set a good example. Kids see what you do far more clearly than they hear what you say. Set an example for your children by being mindful of what you do online and in real life. Even if your kids aren’t your Facebook friends, they see how you treat others every day and they pick up on your social cues. Beyond that, if you want your kids to have a balance between screen time and face-to-face interaction with friends and family, set the example. That can be something as simple as turning off your phone before you sit down to dinner.
On a final note, you may find it interesting to know that most social media sites and apps require users to be 13 or older. Contrary to popular belief, this has little or nothing to do with protecting your kids from inappropriate content. That’s our job as parents. Instead, 13 is the magic number because of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that prevents companies from collecting certain information from kids under the age of thirteen.
Whatever age your children are, by engaging in honest conversation, doing your research, staying connected and up-to-date on what’s trending through sites like The Online Mom, you can feel confident knowing your kids are developing and maintaining safe social media boundaries.
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.