Last week, I read an article suggesting that we should stalk our kids on social media. Okay, the author didn’t actually use the word “stalk,” but when we’re advised to be on every platform our kids are on to see what they’re posting, when they’re posting and what they’re posting about, I have to wonder if this is parenting advice or spy school.
While I agree that children need checks and balances when it comes to social media, and that vigilance is important with younger consumers of technology, I’m not a big fan of the “follow them everywhere” school of thought. In my opinion, if a child is old enough to be on social media, he or she is old enough to have a certain amount of freedom there — freedom that should increase with age and experience. I find it ironic that some of the people who suggest that we shouldn’t trust our kids as far as their electronic tethers will carry them also post memes from “the good old days” when the streetlights called us home. Our parents didn’t follow us everywhere. Why should we do that to our kids?
Please understand — I’m not a fan of unfettered technological freedom either. In my mind, there’s a minimum age of entry for each social media platform. Different levels of maturity are required to manage Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat (to name just a few). But, in my opinion, the best way to help kids navigate the online world is the same way they navigate the real world — step-by-step, with direct assistance at first and with less help as they demonstrate their ability to manage the virtual world.
My daughter got her first cell phone at 9, at least three years sooner than we’d planned. An injury at basketball practice convinced my husband and I that she needed an emergency contact option, shortening our timeline dramatically.
The phone came with rules. No texting. No phone in the bedroom after bedtime. No phone at family meals. Always answer when Mom or Dad calls, or risk losing the phone.
She was so excited to get the phone, she agreed to everything, and although some of those rules are now laughable (no texting??), many simply became habit (we still don’t allow phones at mealtimes — for the kids or the adults). As time went on, some rules relaxed, some required further discussion and some faded once she demonstrated her ability to handle the technology she’d been handed. And, as technology improved and became more ubiquitous, new freedoms (and apps) entered the picture and we had to adjust accordingly.
Make no mistake–that phone wasn’t for her. It was for us. She just happened to be in possession of it.
But it was also a teachable moment. At nine, she was willing to accept the rules we laid out. Over time and as she entered her teens, the phone became a tool that was useful for more than communicating over airwaves, ushering in other kinds of communication as well: discussions about rules, respect, safety and independence.
Technology is a given in our world. By trusting our children with these tools in developmentally appropriate ways, we allow them to experiment and make mistakes while we’re still there to catch them and help them if they falter. They develop freedom in this realm on our watch, under our supervision, so that by the time they need privacy and secrecy as teenagers they know what they’re doing and how to handle themselves. Just as we let go of our toddlers’ hands a little at a time as they learn to walk, we can do the same as we let our kids tiptoe into technology. And just as they’ll never learn to walk on their own if we never let go, they’ll struggle to navigate both technology and the social world that comes with it if we’re constantly looking over their shoulders. They’ll never learn how to trust themselves if we don’t trust them first, a little at a time.
So, be knowledgeable. Know what’s out there. Make rules. Be vigilant. Listen–to the news, but mostly, to your kids. Explain the rules and be ready to adjust them as your kids grow old enough to handle more freedom. Ask them questions about things you’ve heard. Often, the worst-case scenarios we fear aren’t a part of our kids’ worlds anyway.
It’s hard to give our kids freedom. We want to protect them and keep them safe from all the bad stuff out there. Ironically, the best way to do that is to offer freedom a little at a time, and arm them with knowledge every step of the way.
Copyright 2016 Lisa Hess