By Dana Barrett
Struggling with how to be a good parent these days – especially when it comes to cell phones and technology? Rest assured that you aren’t alone. The vastness of the internet creates new problems for managing our kid’s emotional health and their online safety, but with all the warnings, the irony is sometimes social media provides more emotional support than the real world.
As a parent, it’s heartbreaking to see your child struggle with school bullying and social isolation just because their interests are unique or different.
My daughter spent her elementary years at a Waldorf charter school where student groups rolled forward year after year in small pods – this meant that every child in each grade was stuck with the same group of 20 or so kids for 6 years. That concept is supposed to be socially beneficial – creating a small village of love and support. But it only works if all the kids have similar interests and dispositions. This was not the case for my kid – she was a little light that shined in her own sweet way, and the other girls who were more mainstream and generic kept her on the fringes of most feminine social interaction. Oh, there were one or two good eggs who were occasionally kind, but for the rest of the group – think Mean Girls or Pretty Little Liars but wearing child-sized Keds and only slightly less lipstick.
Technology was shunned by the Waldorf School, and parents were lectured regularly on the virtues of cell phone abstinence. I went through a divorce when my daughter was about 11 years old. I decided to buy her a cell phone so she could stay connected with both mom and dad at all times.
As she slowly waded into the online world – she found small chat groups with like-minded girls from all over the state. Her creativity blossomed as she found support and encouragement. She wrote short stories and posted fan-fiction – connecting with even more kids who had a similar light. I watched her confidence grow as she started to feel valued for her opinions and interests, instead of being ostracized for not fitting it. She found her best friend – some 400 miles away, something that never would have happened without her cell phone.
That’s an example of social media literally saving someone’s life. While at the same time we know of many stories that are 180 degrees opposite. Clearly lives have been ruined by social media as well. It’s a massive network with no rules and where no one is trained how to use it. Yet social media is a part of our children’s lives now – and there’s no turning back.
When problems do happen or safety issues arise, parents can feel out of their depths, powerless and unsure how to help a child who may be suffering, the same way I felt with my daughter off social media but in her peer group at school.
Parents only want to help. But the irony is that removing your child from social media, or their online world if they’re being bullied, isn’t necessarily the answer. That forces isolation, which feels like its own punishment one and the same.
So, what’s a good parent to do?
These are some suggestions for managing your child’s internet and social media use – but every situation is different, and as a parent you should decide what is ultimately best for your child.
The best way to protect kids while they use technology is to limit screen time and encourage ‘off screen’ time, while also teaching them to be mindful, thoughtful, and responsible. For example:
• Don’t ever just grab your child’s phone and start scrolling through it – reading all of their personal content. Think about how you would feel if someone did that to you! Instead, treat your kids with respect and let them know that you are ready to help the minute an uncomfortable situation comes up.
• Make an agreement with your child regarding how time limits on social media will work at home (after homework, only in the evenings, establish boundaries, etc.) and collaborate with them on those boundaries. I’ve always found mutual respect makes one likely to honor the rules. (But if that respect can’t be honored, then the rules have to change.)
• Educate your children regarding what is inappropriate on social media. Teach them to recognize signs of bullying or predatory behavior.
• Create family connection time in your weekly schedule. A shared meal if possible at dinner where phones are off and the actual old fashioned communication system of talking to one another is encouraged. Asking children questions spurs answers. Asking about their day, or current likes and dislikes is a good way to start. Questions to make them think are always plus, like ‘if dogs could talk, what do you think is the first thing they’d say? If people could not talk but could only bark, how would you ask me for something?”
If things have gotten serious with your child on social media, and you know threatening behavior has happened either towards your child, or from your child towards another, you may need stricter boundaries.
• Once or twice a month, sit with your child to review which apps or websites they have access to on both their phone or computer.
• Work together to review usernames or screen names of people they are in contact with – but don’t read private messages or texts. If a user looks suspicious – ask the child to show you more information on that particular user.
Elevated life Solutions believes strongly in teaching kids to use social media kindly, safely, and constructively. That is why we have partnered with CyberSmarties – a completely secure social media platform designed for school children only, ages 7-12. The Cybersmarties social network has ended cyberbullying and ended predatory behavior on their platform completely since 2017. They currently protect over 200,000 school children in three different countries and are continuing to expand.
We are raising funds to help CyberSmarties continue to expand their network, so that school children on their platform can learn and play in a protective environment, that has none of the short fallings of social media. Your donation can protect a child right now, who might need someone to look out for them. Perhaps as you might wish someone to be looking out for yours.