When Louise’s son Hart turned 13, he began campaigning for a Facebook account. He just reached its legal age, and he badly wanted to join his friends. He also wanted to download Snapchat and Vine, add Instagram and Twitter, among others.
Louise wasn’t sure if Hart was quite ready, though. “He’s of the age, but I’m not sure he’s got quite the maturity level yet,” she says. “He acts first and thinks after, and I just don’t think that temperament suits social media.”
Hart, of course, doesn’t see it that way. Her reluctance makes him look like a baby. And he feels left out at an age when a child’s peer group grows in psychological importance.
Hart says it’s his “right” to join social media. “He feels totally entitled to be online in this way,” Louise says. “He sees it all like a kind of Disneyland, and he can’t wait to try every ride out.”
The conflict has created “a big quagmire of a fight between us,” she says. It doesn’t help that Hart’s dad Phil — he and Louise are divorced and share joint custody — doesn’t see what the big deal is. “His reasoning is that Hart’s class already does so much on computers,” she explains. “Social media is just an outgrowth of that.”
Louise already has her hands full as a single mom, juggling work, raising Hart and trying to get a side business on the ground. Sometimes, she thinks about giving in, if only to get a moment’s peace. But then, she hears of some incident about a teen and social media. “Honestly, sometimes I can imagine Hart in their place, as crazy as that sounds,” she says. “And so I hold out.”
She stays steady, but she’s dealing with a parenting quandary — and she isn’t certain how long she can hold out against the pubescent surge towards social connectivity.
Hart’s burning desire to join Facebook is actually a growing rarity among his age group. Facebook chief financial officer David Ebersman admitted that the network “did see a decrease in [teenage] daily users, especially younger teens,” according to CNN.
Most tweens, it seems, don’t want to be on the same network with their parents, and they’re leery of the “drama” on the site, according to the Pew Internet Life Project.
That hasn’t dimmed teens’ enthusiasm for social media in general, though — they just gravitate towards younger, hipper services, such as Snapchat, Instagram, Vine and even Twitter, which grew in use among young people.
How kids use social media is shifting, as well. According to Pew, younger users now want to communicate quickly and more intimately with one another, rather than broadcast thoughts and updates to an audience. They share more information — they’re more willing to share videos and pictures, locations and school information, for example — but they’re wary of oversharing, in general, especially to a large amount of users. When they do use Facebook, the online networks resemble their in-person relationships — they tend to be friends with people they know in real-life, and not accept random friend requests.
This seemingly more private way of using social media should provide some comfort for parents, but Louise doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t see it as evidence of young kids being smarter about social media,” she says. “It just happens to be cooler now to be a bit more private. Kids don’t want to be on Snapchat because it’s safer — they want to be on it because their friends are. Kids at that age imitate one another in a move to be cool, but you can’t mistake that groupthink for actual critical thinking.”
Critical thinking, Louise says, is something that Hart lacks. “I gave him a simple phone when he got to junior high to help me coordinate with him,” she adds. “Just a few months ago, we discovered these texts between him and his friends that were kind of ganging up on another kid in their class. It was pretty junior high stuff about being gay and such, and I was very ashamed. I taught Hart to accept all kinds of people, so I can’t believe he’d be so mean in this way.”
Hart’s school teaches children and parents on issues such as bullying, so Louise knew she had to sit down with Hart to discuss his actions. But the talk was frustrating for both of them. “When I sat him down to talk about it, he just didn’t see at first what the big deal it was, saying it was just a joke and the other kid should’ve gotten it,” she says. “Everything’s just a joke at first when it comes to stuff like this, and it’s hard to get a kid in that mindset to take what he does seriously, even when the recipient of that behavior doesn’t think it’s so funny. I finally got him to see how his actions could occur to someone else, but it was an uphill battle.”
It’s that delayed ability to grasp the ramifications of his actions that makes Louise realize Hart doesn’t have the maturity to handle social media right now. “It’s a recipe for potential disaster — the ability to update without thinking, combined with a temperament that can’t really think ahead outside immediate gratification,” she adds. “And he’s at an age where he’s very influenced by his peer group, and let’s face it, his pals are not the smartest apples in the bushel.”
Social media is a tricky psychological balancing act for anyone, much less a young teenager. Child psychologists point out that early social media exposure can blur the barriers between a kid’s public and private selves just as they’re coalescing independent identities, which leaves them vulnerable to online dangers when they do get on social media.
“Children are gaining access to social media sites at a younger age, which could expose them to content, people or situations that are out of their depth and which they’re not emotionally prepared for,” Richard Woolfson, U.K.-based child psychologist, told the Telegraph. “Parents need to maintain an open dialogue and encourage children to share both good and bad online experiences, and make sure they keep up with the latest social media crazes and work with their children rather than trying to control them.”
Good advice, but like many well-meaning tips, they’re easier to say than put into practice. “Yeah, I know, open dialogue — but try having one with a surly tween,” Louise laughs.
And keeping up with the crazes is hard work for parents, who are often already overburdened and not hip to the latest and greatest trends in social media. “I barely have time to keep up with e-mail — much less research, download and try out stuff like Snapchat,” Louise says, “It’s much easier to have my default answer be ‘no’ to everything, and then relent once it’s been tested by others, or until I find out more about it. But that means I have very little peace in my household, at least until I start to cave in.”
And what does Hart say about it all? “Mom just doesn’t get it,” he says. “She’s a dinosaur.”
Louise is holding strong against Hart’s constant haranguing, but other parents take a different tack and allow their kids to try out social media under their watchful eye.
Colin and his wife Annabel recently allowed their 13-year-old daughter Hannah to join Facebook and Instagram, with the provision that she friend them on the sites and they allow access to her account when requested. Hannah protested against the provisos, but then, relented once she realized her parents would otherwise not let her onto the networks without them.
In making their decision, Colin and Annabel felt their daughter demonstrated empathy, caution and sensible judgment in other areas of her life, and felt she wouldn’t do anything rash or misguided.
“We’re both on social media, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram,” Colin says. “But before we let Hannah on, we decided to brush up on the subject [of digital footprints] as a whole and realized it’s actually a lot to take in. So now we have semi-regular discussions with her, just about what she sees on networks and what she thinks of it all, and we feed bits of advice, information and guidelines here and there. But we’re kind of racing to gather up those nuggets ourselves.”
Colin and Annabel are right to take digital footprints seriously, since they bear a growing influence on future success in work, school and life in general. One-in-three U.S. college admissions officers admitted in a survey that they checked applicants’ Facebook pages and ran Google searches on them. One-of-ten 16- to 34-year-olds lost out on a job because of their social media profile, according to USA Today.
Curating a digital footprint is a skill parents have to teach children now, which means tackling at least two different fronts of information. “Hard” digital information includes the e-mail, sites, apps and social media accounts kids sign up for, their social network activity and their content, photos and videos you upload or share.
Kids also have to learn to manage “soft” information — the overall impression it all leaves on people, as well as what other people write and say about them. Together these form an overall digital reputation. Managing a digital footprint — for adults and for kids — is a balance of keeping out or burying negative information and creating or pulling up quality content.
Colin and Annabel worry about striking a good balance between caution and paranoia when it comes to digital reputations. “I don’t want Hannah to be self-conscious about her online identity, but at the same time, you want her to be aware of how it looks to others and how important it will be,” Annabel says.
She and Colin did teach Hannah to look at what’s online about her now, by doing a search of her name on Google and other search engines and looking at the links that pop up not in the Web results, images and videos. Hannah doesn’t have much there now, but in the future her parents worry about having content removed by e-mailing site proprietors to delete problematic links.
When Hannah gets older and begins to participate more online in a public way, her parents plan to teach her the importance of creating high quality links under her name, by creating profiles on prominent social networks, personal websites and other content. They’ll teach her keep tabs on her digital footprint as it shifts, setting up a Google Alert in her name. For now, though, they think a vague awareness is enough.
The trickiest skill parents have to teach, according to Colin and Annabel, is to “think digitally,” as they put it. “It’s just trying to have a sharp lens on what you post or say online,” Annabel says. “Considering things from more than just your point of view.”
This can be a challenge, because so much of technology’s appeal is founded on immediate gratification and fun — but thinking digitally requires the ability to think into the future as well.
This requires parents to teach kids to ask questions before they post or write online. Questions include “Is this something you want everyone — not just friends, but your teachers, coaches or even your future wife or husband — to know about you?” or “What do you think this photo or post communicates about you?” When posting involves others, they should learn to ask themselves, “How would this person feel if they saw this post about them in a few years?”
Thanks to Colin and Annabel’s constant dialogue with their daughter, Hannah has taken a measured “no big deal” approach to social media. Like a lot of girls on Instagram, she likes being creative and posts her more “artsy” pictures to Instagram, and while she sees her share of “catty dramz,” as she puts it, she stays out of it as much as she can.
“There are definitely girls at my school who are like, ‘Why didn’t you like my update?'” Hannah says. “In a way, it’s nice to have my parents as an excuse, because then I can say, ‘Well, I don’t tend to ‘like’ things because my parents are watching. But even if they weren’t, I don’t think I’d bother. People make a big deal out of the dumbest things and take it too seriously.”
But how seriously does Hannah take her own digital reputation? She shrugs at the question. “I don’t have much of one right now,” she says. “I like it that way. It seems like a lot of work to deal with. I’m in no rush.”
Introducing Hannah to social media has gone smoothly for Colin and Annabel, but other parents have hit snags, illustrating how frustrating and difficult this area of parenting is now.
Julia, for example, has a 14-year-old son, Trent, who “is pretty independent and mature in some ways, but not in others,” she says. “We let him have a Facebook profile we keep pretty close tabs on, thinking he can get his feet wet online under our supervision.”
Trent has been pretty good about what he posts, but then one day he popped up on the network in a friends’ picture “throwing so-called ‘gangster signs,'” Julia says. “It was kind of the big fad among his friends. You know how it is in middle school when something gets popular, but it was a little offensive.”
The result was a big discussion: not only did Julia have to tackle the implications of potentially mocking another race, but she had to explain how it looks to outsiders, as well as how permanent digital photographic evidence is. “It was just a headache on so many levels,” Julia says. “Because it’s teaching him to think critically — and hell, that’s something that not even grown-up adults do very well.”
The social media aspect of the photo also complicated the matter. Though Trent’s friends thought they set the privacy level of the photo to just friends, it still popped up in other people’s feeds. “The kid who posted it thought he was being stringent, but if I could see it…well, who else can?” Julia wonders.
Trent’s friend untagged Trent, but she still felt uncomfortable having the photo up online. She asked the parents of Trent’s friend if they could talk to their son, but “they couldn’t really see what the big deal was,” she says. “It was partly an attitude of ‘kids being kids,’ which is true to some extent — but also just how they couldn’t comprehend the long-term implications, saying ‘It’s just Facebook.'”
“I just had to let it go, but I told Trent, ‘Well, now it’s up there and who knows who will see it. You might have some explaining to do one day,'” Julia sighs. “I try to see it as a teaching moment now. But I’m not sure what the long-term costs of this one mistake could be, and that’s a little scary.”
Julia’s aware that all of this makes her sound like “one of those dreaded helicopter parents,” she says. “Which is what I swore up and down I’d never be. I really do believe that it’s important to teach kids to think for themselves, and that means letting them take risks, make mistakes and learn from them. It’s when they become part of a digital permanent record that I get hives thinking about it.”
After a heartfelt discussion, Trent got the message and understands why his mom worries. But the interconnected nature of social sharing has him confused. “I can handle myself okay,” he says. “But how do I speak up when friends are posting stuff that might affect me? I don’t want to seem like a nerd all the time.”
Trent’s next lessons involve learning to stand up for yourself at an age when you want to fit in most — something we all have to learn, but made more complicated by today’s technology.
Parenting by nature is a balancing act, and moms and dads like Julia, Colin, Annabel, Louise and others know there’s only so much control they can assert in any situation. There’s no right or wrong way to approach the subject, and no one-size-fits-all solution for all kids.
The result is a range of approaches to parenting in the digital age. Some like Louise abstain altogether and attempt to prevent their children from popping up online at all. But other parents don’t see this as practical or wise, and take a more incremental approach to teaching kids about digital citizenship, saying it depends on the individual kids and the relationship you have to them.
Parents already have a tough job: it’s not easy to guide, nurture and teach kids towards successful, independent yet connected identities and relationships, “much less keeping them alive,” jokes Julia.
Add technology on top of the list of things for parents to worry about, and it’s easy for already busy, stressed-out moms and dads to feel overwhelmed.
“Parenting is already an act of improvisation,” Julia says. “You can get advice and try to make a plan, but in the end, it’s really about a constant dialogue. All you can do is teach them what’s important, how to think, how to treat others and themselves — and then cross your fingers and hope for the best. And then hope any mistakes get buried past the first page of a Google search.” ♦