Parents are using their children’s attachment to social media to their advantage, making it a powerful incentive — and punishment — in the age-old struggle to raise kids right.
Parents are tightening the reins on their kids’ previously unchecked Internet access, as they begin to better understand the broader implications of social media, constant connectedness and limitless browsing.
Facebook, text messaging and YouTube blanketed our entertainment landscape overnight, and these tools drifted into the very eager and capable hands of children, who enthusiastically adopted the technology.
The digital revolution took off, in part, because of the popular gadgets’ great intuitive ability. Add these products’ stunning array of activities — from instant messaging to group gameplay — to a sense of parental ennui or confusion, and it is no wonder the younger generation is hyper-focused on mobile technology.
Parents, though, are awakening to the power of what many previously viewed as a harmless distraction and now ask important questions. Their concerns go beyond questions of device costs and subscription plans, and focus on how this new digital reality is affecting their children’s emotional development, cognitive functioning, social interaction, and framing their futures.
Parents Start “Talking Back”
A host of resources have sprung up to help parents navigate the digital landscape with their kids, charting a middle course between total bans and complete immersion and opening up a dialogue about technology between parents and kids.
In the book Talking Back to Facebook, author and Common Sense Media founder Jim Steyer explains how his family tackled these questions and navigated the challenges and opportunities of technology, offering a primer for other families looking to mesh traditional and digital media in their kids’ lives so they can grow into responsible, respectful digital citizens. Common Sense advocates for families who find themselves immersed in a 24/7 media landscape.
Caroline Knorr, the parenting editor at Common Sense, distilled the general advice to parents, saying, “Choose wisely, limit exposure and stay involved.”
Knorr believes it is parents’ duty in this digital age to take advantage of a lot of built-in tools to lower exposure and the amount of time children spend online. And, for those parents who are afraid their children are growing up too fast, their education and involvement can be the key.
Groups like Common Sense offer an alternative to total immersion or a complete ban, both of which haven’t proven effective strategies in equipping children with the necessary tools for their future. These advocacy groups stand between your children and the media, offering some insight and information to inform parents so they can make the choices that matter to them.
For example, the Common Sense website offers a series of recommended websites that are safer alternatives than Facebook for kids, especially for younger children. In addition, the organization offers a weekly newsletter for parents which reviews new media, like video games and movies coming out that week.
“We are totally independent and don’t always agree with the standard ratings boards,” Knorr said. For example, a video game with five stars may have violence that many parents don’t know about. The newsletter provides that information and a recommendation, in terms of developmental appropriateness. The aim is to offer parents a better understanding of the content, like if there are consequences or if the violence is gratuitous, so parents can better decide for themselves.
Again, the tone isn’t to shun video games or content, but to give parents options towards some of the better stuff out there.
Knorr thinks a series of small steps offer a solid start to the ongoing discussion with children about technology. First, she urges parents to talk to their children about their favorite games and what social media they use, asking what they like about it and sitting with them while the explain how they use it.
It is a good idea to talk about who they chat with, asking if they are school friends or how they know that person. However, parents don’t need to assume an unfamiliar person is necessarily dangerous. Even if children don’t personally know everyone they are talking with, parents can find out if the site is moderated and can provide some level of safety and assurance, so ask what the kids are talking about.
Knorr said it is important to help your child develop media literacy so they understand what is age-appropriate. There is amazing stuff out there and you can help your child find it and encourage them to stay on those sites. Also, it is a good idea to point out and teach your child to find what is an advertisement on the page and to question if they think a particular advertiser is a good authority on the subject.
The recognition that social media wields awesome power over young adults also prompted author Rachel Simmons to revise her seminal book on young girls, Odd Girl Out. In the new revision, Simmons provides some practical tips for parents and other caregivers on navigating this new technology.
Like other advocates, Simmons reassures parents they are absolutely entitled to ask kids to show them what screen they are viewing, and recommends keeping the family computer in a public place to keep young people from using it for questionable activities.
Simmons also advocates using a “cell phone parking area” to put mobile devices away during homework and dinnertime, and the author takes a firm stance against letting kids sleep with their phones since their alerts encourage late-night chats. In addition to more supervision, Simmons also encourages adults to review their own mobile gadget and social media use, since it won’t go over well if parents prohibit children from activities they themselves serially violate.
What’s a Parent to Do?
One of parents’ primary jobs is to prepare children for the real world — one where Facebook and social media postings are increasingly public places for personal pictures, immature opinions and juvenile social interactions. The challenge isn’t so much as banning new technology, but grasping the new realities and nuances of raising kids in a digital age.
The case of mother Denise Abbot, who this spring used her daughter’s Facebook to send a stern message to her 13-year-old daughter, is a good example of how parents are taking a stand to turn the tides a little more firmly in their favor, using social media and their children’s attachment to it to manage their children’s behavior. Abbot took to daughter Ava’s Facebook page, posting a picture of her daughter with a red “X” across her mouth and the following caption: “I do not know how to keep my [implied by picture as mouth shut]. I am no longer allowed on Facebook or my phone. Please ask why.”
The mother’s actions were prompted by a familiar situation for many parents. Ava was mouthing off to her mom in front of her friends and continued to do so despite Denise’s warnings. The mom thought the Facebook posting, and suspending her daughter from the social network, was an appropriate punishment. Almost immediately, traditional media picked up on Abbot’s Facebook punishment, bloggers took to their sites to cheer and jeer the mother, and parents on soccer sidelines and baseball bleachers buzzed about the story, just as they did in February when a frustrated, gun-toting dad made a similar point to his daughter on the social network.
These parents’ specific tactics will likely be subject to ongoing debate, but whether parents can or should use technology in parenting is more obvious. Parents make use of the things that kids value to discipline, motivate and reward, whether that is a car, hobbies or technology. Twenty years ago, nobody would think twice if a parent took the car keys away from an unruly teen, and since teenagers today report they actually value smartphones over cars, technology is a logical parental tool.
In addition to a growing number of parents managing their children’s digital lives, a broader push is underway to ferret out healthy and beneficial strategies. This summer, Microsoft and Scholastic sponsored the inaugural Digital Family Summit to bring together more than 200 creative teens and tweens from around the country along with their families. The three-day conference helped teens develop skills through hands-on workshops and interactive sessions, learn how they can take their creative endeavors to a more professional level, and explore the impact that kids are having on the broader digital culture.
The issue of families dealing with “connection addiction” got some mainstream attention this fall with television host Katie Couric‘s daytime series, “Katie.” She focused on the push back against the massive power of both the Internet and social networking and what it’s doing to children’s brains, something recently dubbed by Newsweek as “crazy psychosis.”
Couric has given interviews to magazines about raising daughters Ellie, 21, and Carrie, 16, in the digital age. For her show, she asked experts how tweets, texts and emails impact children’s health and could feed into Internet addictions to gaming, virtual reality and social media.
The show featured Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a well-known speaker on tech issues. At a presentation to students at Texas Christian University last month, Carr said, “By living in a culture that values quantity over quality when it comes to information, people are losing an essential part of their humanity; the ability to think deeply. Activities like self-reflection and critical thinking are becoming less common, and Facebook and Twitter have taken their place.”
If parents were intimidated by the digital edge kids have over them, they are certainly making strides now. More parents understand the permanency of the modern child’s digital activities, and advocacy groups and mainstream media can help broaden that awareness.
Parents are using their kids’ fascination with social media as a parenting tool to reward their children’s behavior and accomplishments. And they realize they can influence their tweens’ and teens’ online behavior and give their younger kids a head start in understanding the implications of sharing in the digital age.
Photo courtesy Flickr, owenwbrown
This article originally published at Mobiledia