Disclosure :: One of the many decisions that parents struggle with today is whether or not to give their child a cell phone, and if they do, what is the right age? Once they do give them a cell phone, what is the best way to establish boundaries with the internet at their finger tips? The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital has sponsored this post from Lisa Phillips, MSW, LMSW, Parent Educator with some insight on establishing boundaries with your child and social media.
Parenting challenges often change a bit from generation to generation, but perhaps the greatest adjustments in recent years concern children’s and adolescents’ use of technology. Even just a few years ago, many of us could not have imagined the avalanche of apps and social media sites just a click away. Our children’s knowledge of this technology often outpaces ours by the time they are in middle school, making us feel helpless to offer guidance and protection. There are so many potential dangers out there, including predators, cyber bullying, and access to explicit adult material.
How do we decide how much freedom and access to the cyber world we allow children and at what age?
The siren song of the social media websites often begin at a younger age than we might expect. Your child pleads for a smart phone, Facebook and Instagram accounts when it seems like she just learned how to email Grandma. But the preteen brain is still developing and often not up to the task of making good judgments about navigating online relationships and making sense of the inappropriate material that often becomes unavoidable. And even older teens frequently fail to grasp that what goes out into cyberspace stays there indefinitely. Parents can help, though, by beginning conversations when children are in grade school about online behavior, safety issues and family rules about media, as well as monitoring where, when, and with whom their child is engaging online.
Establishing cell phone boundaries
Often the push for access to social media begins about the time a child wants access to a smartphone. Certainly parents have valid reasons related to safety and convenience for providing their child with a cellphone. But the step up to a smart phone essentially provides children with a pocket-size internet and all its temptations and pitfalls, often with much less supervision than the PC in the living room. Not to mention, it’s an expensive device to give a child who still can’t seem to keep track of his jacket! Still, if a parent decides a child is ready, consider using a contract that clearly outlines your expectations. There are several of these for all ages on Common Sense Media. The areas outlined are around safety, privacy, a code of conduct, responsibility for the device, and the amount of time spent on it. You can also establish rules such as the phone must be left on the charger in the living room at night, rather than allowing the child to sleep with it. Also, consider how you will monitor use. Most cell phone providers offer parental controls, and there are certainly apps and blocking software that can help prevent access to inappropriate material and set limits on time use. Have the phone’s password, and be upfront with your child about how you intend to occasionally check history and texts, not to be intrusive, but to make sure the rules are being followed for their own safety. It’s important to consider our own behavior as well. We can’t expect our children not to be engrossed in cell phones if they’re growing up watching us completely absorbed by our own.
Are they ready for social media?
Many adults value social media websites such as Facebook for the connection to far-flung relatives and friends. But when kids ask for a Facebook and Instagram account, keep in mind these sites request that users be at least age 13. While many children plead for access earlier because their peers have it (although be a little skeptical of the “everyone else has one” argument), younger teens (and even older ones) often have a difficult time managing the responsibilities of such sites. One reason for the often cruel behavior on these sites is that this technology creates a kind of “I can’t see you, you can’t see me” effect. Kids perceive they are invisible online or can be anonymous, which reduces fear of being detected or punished. Without seeing someone’s face, or hearing their voice, it’s harder to have empathy for the person you’ve targeted and to feel remorse. And the more kids depend on screens and texts to communicate with one another the more difficult it may become to develop key interpersonal skills in real life. So if a parent does feel their child is ready for such an account, outline clear expectations and consequences regarding online behavior towards others.
Enforcing your standards
One way to enforce a parent’s standards is to have your own account within the same platform so you can “friend” or “follow” your child. Certainly make sure their privacy settings are where you want them to be. Even with that precaution, however, parents need to familiarize themselves enough with the sites to understand that there can be additional features that need to be addressed. For example, Instagram has a geotagging feature that, if not disabled, can show a user’s location. And while there are many beautiful photographs on that site, occasionally some appear before being flagged that parents would not be happy about their children viewing.
As with most parenting issues, there aren’t easy answers. We all want our kids to fit in and have a sense of belonging among their peers. But we don’t want to put them in situations that they aren’t ready to handle. Thinking about how temperament and development affect decision-making skills, being clear on our family values, having discussions about technology, giving guidelines and limits, and providing monitoring are all ways we can feel more confident about helping our children learn to navigate both the digital world and the real-life one.
Some additional resources you may find helpful:
The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age by Catherine Steiner-Adair
About Lisa Phillips
Lisa Phillips, MSW, LMSW is a Parent Educator at The Parenting Center at Children’s Hospital. She is a mom of two teens trying to find a healthy balance with their use of cell phones and social media.