Editor's note: If you're an innovative educator in secondary school, you are likely to have parents ask for your expert advice on teens and social media. You can give them this article directly or use it to get some ideas about how to best approach the conversation.
If you are a parent of a teen, you've already have a lot of experience working with your child(ren) to help them figure out how to engage safely and responsibly in the world. You've thought about which (or if) school is the best, which clubs they should join, which friends they should hang out with, which groups they should be a part of, and when and where they can go and hang out safely.
Be prepared not to "discuss" not "tell" your child how to remain safe and responsible online. It is likely they already know what to do if someone writes something that makes them, or someone they know, feel uncomfortable. Discuss what to do if someone makes your child feel uncomfortable, for example, you can block or report them to the space. Discuss what to do if they find someone is making someone else uncomfortable.
When your child becomes a teen there will be some new places for you to think about your child being a part of. That is because at 13 your child legally old enough to join popular social media sites like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and more.
The good news is you are prepared to do this. You have experience in making sure your child is engaging safely and responsibly in environments that are beneficial. What you've done in the physical world is exactly what you should do online.
Here are some things to think about when, or ideally before, that day comes.
"Just say no" to "Just say no"
While banning certainly is the easy way out, it is usually not what is best. Try to remember when you were a teen and how you felt when something was forbidden. That thing suddenly seemed very special. In some cases, it drove the activity underground and made it secret. Or in some cases the teen does what they are told just because you say so, but...
If you want to help instill the ability for your child to make responsible decisions independently and, if you want your child to make smart decisions, rather than just do what they’re told, then banning is not the answer.
If your child wanted to join a new club or play a new game you would never "just say no." Think of online worlds that way.
What would you do first?
You would probably start by talking to your child respectfully, just like you would if they wanted to go to a new school or join a new program. You would want to know why they are interested in this school or program. Maybe it’s to make new friends, learn new things, get better at something they love to do, or maybe they think this might be the ticket to making the world a better place. All of these reasons your child wants to belong to physical spaces can apply to online spaces.
Find out who your child knows who is using this platform and ask your child how they use it? Take note of news stories of people using this platform in both successful and unsuccessful ways. Discuss with your child what ways they envision using the space. Find out the types of people with whom they hope to connect and interact.
Safety is of utmost importance. By the time they're a teen, you've already had conversations with your child about how to remain safe in physical spaces. For example, if someone says something that makes them uncomfortable they should leave the situation and find a trusted adult to discuss what happened. If they live in New York City, they know, "If you see something, say something" (to the proper authorities). You'll have the same conversations when it comes to online spaces.
Give your children credit
When it comes to using social media, don't be surprised with the amount of common sense teens have today. They've grown up in a social world. They've heard the stories, watched the media, and likely even watched adults in their lives using it.
If they don’t…
Know basic safety tips
Explain to them the importance of being an active upstander rather than a passive bystander. Talk about ways you can verify identity, just like you would do with face-to-face connections. For example, before you would engage in ongoing conversation with someone, you’d want to know a little more about them. How old are they? Where do they work or go to school? What sort of conversations are they involved in? Make sure your child know how to do this by doing things like checking profiles across platforms, looking at posting history, doing a Google search.
For more advice you can check out this parent guide to social media from the New York City Department of Education.
Do your research
Learn about some of the amazing ways people are using social media. For example, did you know that social media use can help improve your child's writing? Did you know that more and more students are using social media to build learning networks, for social good, or to understand and discuss important issues. You wouldn't want to get in the way of that.
What if, however, your teen just wants to use social media to socialize and stay abreast of their favorite teen idol. Well, that's not much different then when you were a teen. There were teen magazines, posters of their favs on the wall (True confession: for me it was Blackie from Days of Our Lives). The bonus with this is they'll be reading and writing more for real audiences. Research indicates that improves literacy.
“Writing in public, whether it's in the form of blogs or microblogs, like a Twitter stream, is forcing us to be clearer, more convincing and smarter. A big audience isn't required. Knowing your write for an audience of just a few people will force you to stretch and grow." - Clive Thompson, Wired
If you don't feel capable or knowledgeable enough to discuss this with your child alone, be honest. Discuss with you child if there is a trusted friend or family member that could support you both as you enter these waters. Dana Boyd says one of the most important things you can do is help your child develop a support network.
“As a parent, there are times your kid won’t want to talk to you. So the more you’ve thought through how they have a support network that’s not just you, the better off they’ll be when they hit any bump. And increasingly, the way that happens is online. As a parent, you can also reach out to other kids in your friend networks, so you’re an adult those kids can turn to.”
Today’s children are likely to need social media for academic and career success. Talking to your child about how to do this safely and responsibly is an important part of your job as a parent today.
Lisa Nielsen writes for and speaks to audiences across the globe about learning innovatively and is frequently covered by local and national media for her views on “Passion (not data) Driven Learning,” "Thinking Outside the Ban" to harness the power of technology for learning, and using the power of social media to provide a voice to educators and students. Ms. Nielsen has worked for more than a decade in various capacities to support learning in real and innovative ways that will prepare students for success. In addition to her award-winning blog, The Innovative Educator, Ms. Nielsen’s writing is featured in places such as Huffington Post, Tech & Learning, ISTE Connects, ASCD Wholechild, MindShift, Leading & Learning, The Unplugged Mom, and is the author the book Teaching Generation Text.
Disclaimer: The information shared here is strictly that of the author and does not reflect the opinions or endorsement of her employer.