A Dad’s Take on Social Media and Parenting

Now that my daughter is nearing her 9th birthday and social media is more and more enmeshed in our lives, I’m starting to think about the potential risks for her. It used to be that you could make sure your kids hung out with the right crowd, know the parents of their friends and pretty much make sure they were home by curfew. But in our uber-connected world, we’re surfacing dangers our parents never had to face. Dangers we don’t know quite how to manage. I don’t, certainly.

Sure, we could prevent her from having a cell phone. From accessing technology unless we’re present. But her friends will have access. And wouldn’t that pique her curiosity even more, making matters worse? Just a three years ago we talked about how we’d create a computer area in the family room – out in the open rather than in her room. 5 at the time – kindergarten – it seemed a long ways off when we’d have to REALLY address it. Now this notion seems rather quaint.

We also used to talk with parents of older (now leaving high school) kids  about cell phones – and how that just allowed you to talk with them without them necessarily being where they said they’d be. Of course, GPS in a smart phone addresses that. But no matter how hard you try as a parent to protect your child, you cannot plug all of the potential avenues that could lead to trouble. It’s too easy to be anonomous. Too easy to be someone you’re not online. And with girls in particular, in their early teens they’re just figuring out who they are. Gaining a sense of self and self esteem. Society already places too much pressure to look perfect – and creates plenty of opportunity to be insecure about something – that the validation of someone online is pretty appealing. The effects of bullying can be pretty serious as we’re starting to see.

As a parent. It’s a frightening prospect. At times I’d like to bury my head in the sand, but that’s not exactly good parenting. And since social media is so new – and technology changing so rapidly – we don’t have case studies and best practices to draw from. There’s no manual. No map. No, we’re all figuring it out as we go.

I’d like to think our children, growing up in the connected world will have a leg up in figuring this out when they’re parents. It’ll be natural for them. But us? We grew up in the stone age. The days of Betamax and Walkman’s. The days when your first cell phone required a fork lift and cost gazillions per minute. And only allowed you to talk. Okay, I’m dating myself a bit. But the world’s changed a lot in the last twenty years. Even the last three.

Suffice to say as a parent I’m a bit unsure of how to navigate these waters with my daughter. Right now? She’s enjoying Webkinz. And listens to us when we say she can’t connect with anyone she doesn’t know in real life. Anyone WE don’t know. Because even there in the innocent Webkinz world – she connected with someone who then hacked her account and stole her kinz cash. Not sure how. But it happened. We recovered and changed her password but it’s certainly just the beginning.

I’ve noticed this year – third grade – in particular – is the year my daughter and her friends are starting to figure things out. Like who’s nice and who’s not. And that they don’t really want or need to be around peers who are not so nice. Birthday parties are becoming smaller – more sleepovers but no longer inviting the whole class. They’re also expressing more interest in technology. Some are starting to get iPod touches.

As a parent, what do you do? My wife and I, while we don’t know, exactly, are focusing on keeping the lines of communication open. Something that’ll become way more important when she’s a teenager and we’re totally not cool. We’re also trying to instill a sense of self confidence and independent thinking, hoping that’ll help her not bow to peer pressure in real life or online. We hope she’s able to think for herself. And trust her to make good decisions. Sure, like any teenager, she’ll not always make the best ones. We’ve all been there. But now the stakes are higher. The distractions greater, faster. Access to the world at her fingertips opening many doors. Some of which are pretty dark.

I love the connections and opportunities the social web has opened up. As an adult, I can understand the potential dangers. But now we need to educate our kids about these dangers online even when we don’t know where they all are – and just when one is squelched, there’s always another to take it’s place. Privacy is rapidly being redefined. And none of us have the answers. “Be safe”used to only be expressed when your child went out with friends. Now you have to ensure they’re safe even at home.

Right now, we’re holding off on that cell phone for her until junior high. That’s three short years. All I know is I’m a concerned parent who looks forward to figuring this out with you. How do you talk with your kids about social media? What do you allow not allow?

Patrick Prothe

Image by Horton Group. http://www.sxc.hu/profile/hortongrou

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