I have recently been asked about the following article from Medium.com by multiple parents: “I’m a 37-Year-Old Mom & I Spent Seven Days Online as an 11-Year-Old Girl. Here’s What I Learned.” Parents have asked about my opinion of child social media use in light of this article, and generally how concerned they should be. Here is my attempt to provide a summary of my thoughts, however, I would strongly encourage all parents to be having regular dialogue with their partner, kids, and other parents and professionals to maintain awareness of this area of your child’s life.
The situations described in the article are frightening for all parents, and unfortunately, they are very real. I have asked female clients if they have been approached by adult men through social media, and if they have received unwanted sexually explicit comments or material from men via social media. The answer for some was a quick “yes.” They may minimize it as something they ignore or are used to, but they clearly do not want such interactions. They also do not want their social media use to be monitored or regulated any more than it is, so they likely do not share these experiences with their parents. This is not a universal experience, but it clearly requires parent awareness and attention. It’s not too late to have these conversations and to set up parental oversight as needed. Sometimes you need to move backwards before you can move forwards. As with other areas of independence and responsibility (i.e., curfew, homework completion, driving privileges), parents need to know their child and set boundaries based on each child’s level of maturity. This includes their ability to make wise choices, to know when to ask for help, and to regulate their own emotions and behavior.
Based on my experience, it’s safe to say that parents are less informed and aware then they need to be. The biggest lesson for parents of young kids who are not using social media yet is to start early. Learn about what is out there, both apps and parental control methods. Educate yourself and your child about the dangers present through social media, and if you are not ready to manage the issues that will come up (which apps can they use, how much time can they use it, how to set up privacy settings, ways to monitor social media use, etc…), then do not move forward. Learn about apps together with your child, and discuss what situations might come up, how they would feel when faced with that experience, and appropriate ways to respond. These situations can include being approached by strangers, being sent inappropriate messages, pictures, or videos by known and unknown individuals, gossip and bullying behavior.
It’s also important for your child to recognize their own emotions and motivations when using social media. Are they posting something in order to be accepted by certain peers? Are they looking to boost their confidence through likes and comments? Do they post pictures or messages to be seen as older than they really are? Navigating social media relationships, as in face-to-face relationships, is complicated, and kids may not be ready for some of the situations they face. Role-playing can help prepare your child, and asking them to think about what they would advise a friend that confided in them about various situations. The article I referenced at the beginning is definitely alarming, but I hope it can help parents prioritize the education and involvement that is necessary for kids to have safe and affirming social media experiences.