Social networking, cell phones, and access to the internet have created a whole new world. No generation of kids has ever faced anything like it. The information, the opportunities, and of course the dangers, are completely unprecedented. For parents it's more than daunting. It's as if we've all been set down in the middle of a life-size scientific experiment, and we--and our kids--are the lab rats.
Facebook, texting, chatting, and other social-networking activities offer plenty of positives. I myself rely on these technologies to stay connected to friends, both present and past. But when it comes to our kids, we want to remain aware of the many potential dangers the online world represents.
I've got to admit that I'm just beginning to face the reality of the situation as my oldest child enters adolescence. I--like you--am going to have to figure out my approach along the way. As something of a conversation starter, I want to offer a list of fundamental issues and concerns we should all be aware of as we think about our kids and technology.
Kids rarely have any idea how much of themselves they’re showing the world when they go online. (Actually, we adults are almost as unaware.) The fact is that unless we take measures to educate our kids (and ourselves) about privacy and the internet, every picture they post and sentence they write can potentially be seen by anyone in the world. Something they think they’ve posted for one friend to see could be seen by millions.
Of course, it’s just as scary what our kids might be exposed to. There are plenty of dangerous images and messages they’ll be confronted with in both the real and virtual world. We can’t shield them from everything, but we can set up safeguards that protect them from as much as possible. And just as important, we can educate them, so they can use their common sense and make good decisions when confronted with something harmful.
Whether we’re talking about social networking or some other type of technology, we want to limit our kids’ screen time. There’s nothing wrong with watching a TV show or spending time texting. But we don’t want a screen to take over our kids’ world. I tell my kids that I’m not against video games, assuming they’re appropriate; I actually like that they’re getting to exercise their brains in that way, in limited amounts of time. But I want their brains to get exercise in other ways as well, so I make sure that they have time with friends, time for reading, time with family, and so on.
Variety of interests
Related to the last point is the question of what else our kids are doing besides interacting with friends online. There’s nothing inherently wrong with chatting or Facebooking or checking out friends’ photos on Instagram. But again, we don’t want those activities to become who our children are. That can remain one aspect of their life, but we want to raise well-rounded kids who are involved in many different pursuits that challenge them to develop the many parts of themselves.
The example we set
I’ll admit that I’m not always great at ignoring every text that comes in while our family’s having dinner. But it really is important. The way we live our lives is a model for our kids, and what they see us doing sets expectations in their minds about what’s OK and what’s not. So while it’s fine for our kids to know that we Facebook and text and surf, we want to show them that we also know how to “un-plug” when it’s time and focus on things other than the iPhone.
I’ll close by recommending James P. Steyer’s book Talking Back to Facebook, along with his website CommonSenseMedia.org. Steyer offers practical advice, as well as a much fuller discussion of these issues that can help you make good decisions as you face these new and challenging dilemmas with your child.