In my recent blog on teens and social media I shared that we haven’t yet allowed our teenagers to have their own social media accounts. I drew the analogy that simply giving them access to social media when they turned 13 would be like giving them the keys to the family car and wishing them all the best.
As a result of that blog, Channel Nine’s A Current Affair program invited me to join the conversation on a story they were airing about teens and social media.
I was asked under what conditions might we give our kids access to social media in the future. Air time precluded sharing my full response, so here it is….
From L plates to P plates
To continue the driving analogy: our kids start with their L plates, under the close instruction of an experienced driver. So, when it comes to technology, we start by giving access to text messaging and group texting apps such as WhatsApp on their mobile phone and/or laptop.
From the outset, we set the expectation that we will be checking their messages from time to time. When we see inappropriate conversations, we sit down and have a discussion about better communication.
During this learning phase, we’re looking for evidence of good communication skills both online and offline. For example, have they demonstrated:
Good face-to-face communication skills
Are they able to engage with their peers and adults face-to-face? Do their face-to-face interactions mirror their online conversations, or are they timid in person and brash and obnoxious online?
Do they engage in respectful online conversations or are they using the medium to intimidate, bully or gossip? Are they able to assume the best and extend the most generous interpretation where another person’s comments are ambiguous or unclear?
Coping with criticism and negative feedback
It is unfortunate, but social media has become a platform where people can have a degree of anonymity and there are haters who love to criticise and shame. We can’t shield our kids from this forever, in fact it happens in the playground at school. But social media amplifies this in a very public way, and in terms of protecting our teen’s mental health, I want to ensure that they have a level of self-confidence to shake that negativity off.
If you overheard a comment you didn’t agree with on the bus, very few people would interject with a foul-mouthed, offensive spray. However, sitting behind their keyboards on social media, the haters do it all the time. As an adult that’s not always easy to handle; as a teenager exploring where and how they fit in, such negativity can potentially lead to depression and a raft of mental health issues.
In her recent book Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown says that increasingly people want to boil down big philosophical discussions and force us to take sides – ‘you’re either with us or against us’.
She says, “one of the most courageous things to say in an uncomfortable conversation is, ‘tell me more.… Help me understand why this is so important to you, or, help me understand why you don’t agree with a particular idea’…in a fitting-in culture, curiosity is seen as weakness and asking questions equates to antagonism rather than being valued as learning.”
So, one of the things I want our kids to learn before using social media is that when they meet someone with an opposing point of view, they don’t immediately brand them as ‘the enemy’ and impulsively start an argument. I want them to learn to ask questions to understand the other persons perspective; and even if they can’t agree, they have a better understanding of the person’s position and can still respect their fellow human being.
P plate before full license
Once they’ve demonstrated a degree of competence in these four areas, our teens are ready for their P plates and become active on social media. But in the same way that P-platers have a number of restrictions (such as a reduced speed limit, number of passengers in the car, blood alcohol limit) before they obtain their full drivers’ licence, the introduction to social media will be a hands-on coaching exercise, gradually stepping back once they have demonstrated that they are responsible online citizens.
How do you handle social media in your family?