October 26, 2011

Talking About Social Media

Mom, please, can I have a Facebook account?”
“No, you may not have a Facebook account.”
“But you and Daddy have one! Can’t I? Please?”
We’ve had this conversation in our home with our preadolescent children more times than my husband and I care to remember. The conversation always ends the same way—the children disappointed and the parents feeling like bad guys.
Our generation has no parental reference point for these conversations. Facebook and other social media sites such as Myspace, Twitter, and Google are a recent phenomenon. We can’t mentally flash back to our own childhoods and recall how our parents answered this question. The rise of social media sites may be recent, but their presence is pervasive, and it looks like social media, in some form, is here to stay.
Just how often is this conversation played out at dinner tables across America? A recent study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that it’s happening a lot. Access to the Internet has skyrocketed. Kaiser’s 2009 survey of 8- to 18-year-olds found that kids spend an average of 22 minutes per day on social media Web sites.1 If you include YouTube, the time jumps to 37 minutes a day.2
2011 1530 page24And it isn’t just teenagers. The group of kids that spends the most time on social media sites is the 11- to 14-year-olds.3
What is the impact of all this time spent on social media, and how should parents regulate their children’s access to it? Different approaches are needed for children under the age of 13 compared to those that work best for teenagers.
Congress has enacted a law that regulates communication with children on the Internet: the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). It’s not legal, without parental consent, to gather information online from children under the age of 13. COPPA protects those who are socially and emotionally maturing—our children. Most social networking sites, Twitter and YouTube being exceptions, are restricted to people 13 years of age and older.
In spite of this, it has become common practice for parents to allow their children to falsify birthdates in order to gain access to Facebook and other sites. This places children in a social arena that they may not be able to navigate safely. It also clearly sends the child the wrong message about the value of honesty.
The Benefits
Are there benefits to social media? Arguably, yes. Social media is an extension of a young person’s real-life social world. In 2006 a survey of Dutch adolescents found that positive remarks and comments on social media sites improved teens’ self-esteem.4 They can be convenient venues for children to communicate with friends and relatives, and can help to close the distance gap between children and faraway relatives.
In 2011 the American Academy of Pediatrics released a clinical report on the effects of social media on children. Dr. Gwenn S. O’Keeffe, the primary contributor, argues that social media can be beneficial to adolescents. They can improve a teen’s technical skills and provide creative outlets for writing and music.5  Social media are beneficial when they become an extension of a teen’s already healthy and maturing offline social network.
The Problems
For most parents it isn’t the benefits of social media that immediately jump to mind—instead, we think of its many problems.
The child’s safety is most parents’ initial concern. The Internet offers a veil of anonymity for predators. The 14-year-old girl who “likes puppies” may in reality be a “snaggletoothed monster.” The thought gives parents collective goose bumps.
As scary as the “creepy guy” is, the American Academy of Pediatrics study found that the most common risk teens face online is not from strangers, but from their peers.6
A generation ago bullies were confined to the schoolyard and neighborhood back alleys. Now, with the rise of social media, our children can be bullied on their Google home pages right in the safety of their living room. Cyberbullying occurs when social media is used to share false, embarrassing, or threatening information against another person. It’s a common casualty of social media sites and can result in depression, anxiety, and, tragically, even suicide.7 Information shared through social media can be seen by any number of people, and once created can be impossible to get rid of.
What to Do?
Social media is here to stay, and so how do we as parents handle it? O’Keeffe argues that parents have an important role to play. We have to talk to our children and to educate ourselves about the technology that our children are using.8 A clear understanding of social media sites is the best way to become a part of our children’s online social world. Diving in headfirst and learning a site’s privacy settings is imperative. We provide our children with ample driving lessons before we hesitatingly send them out onto the freeways. In the same way, our children should be amply prepared before being sent out on the information highway.
Parents in ancient Israel were instructed to talk to their children about God’s plan for how they should live their lives. Our parental forebears were told to talk to their children when they were at home, when they were on the road, when they were getting up, and when they were going to bed.9 We now can add another time: when we are going online. The values and morals that we hope to instill in our kids each day need to be reinforced when we talk to them about their online social life.
Have a discussion about empathy with your children. Remind them of how our words and actions make others feel. Words that feel impersonal when typed on a computer keyboard can have a stinging effect on another of God’s children. Remind them of God’s plan for their lives—a plan that includes honesty, caring, and trustworthiness.
Previous generations have done much of their growing up in crowded academy hallways, on grassy fields, and behind cash registers on first jobs. Kids are still doing the same things, but they’re also spending much of their growing-up time sitting behind computers and on smartphones.
We may not have a parental reference point for social media, but that’s OK. We don’t need one. We can make decisions about social media the same way parents have made decisions for their adolescents for generations. If Facebook is still “the” social media site when our children become adolescents, I don’t know what our answer to their question about having a Facebook account will be. But I do know that the answer will begin with this: “Let’s talk.”
1 V. Rideout, U. Foehr, and D. Roberts, Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds (Menlo Park, Calif.: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010), p. 20.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 P. M. Valkenburg, J. Peter, and A. Schouten, “Friend Networking Sites and Their Relationship to Adolescents’ Well-being and Social Self-esteem,” CyberPsychology and Behavior 9: 581-590.
5 G. S. O’Keeffe, and K. Clarke-Pearson, “The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families,” Pediatrics, March 28, 2011, pp. 800-804, retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2011/03/28/peds.2011-0054.
6Ibid., p. 801.
8Ibid., p. 803.
9Deut. 11:19.

Jean Boonstra, B.A., is children’s ministries coordinator and director of www.myplacewithjesus.com for it is written. She lives in Maryland with her husband, Shawn, and two delightful daughters. This article was published October 27, 2011.