To tweet or not to tweet?
Is your child ready for an Instagram/Facebook/Twitter account?
With the recent change in Facebook privacy settings which allow status updates, videos and images to be seen publicly there is even more cause to be cautious in your children's use of social media.
It's no question that social media has changed the way that we interact with the world. We went to a museum exhibit recently and I kept getting dirty looks, chasing after my boys because I kept walking in front of people trying get the perfect picture on their phone ... there's no doubt that I "photo-bombed" lots of Facebook posts, tweets and Instagram accounts that day.
We are more connected now with more people than ever before. The problem is the types of connections that these mediums tend to foster. Adults have a difficult time with many aspects of social media: deciphering true friendship, using caution when posting personal information and being careful not to say and do things because of the security and anonymity of being behind the computer. These three issues are even more difficult for teenagers to wrap their heads around.
So, when is the right age to let your child use social media? It depends.
It depends on so many things and there's not a simple answer but here are some questions you need to ask yourself.
1) What does your tween/teenager want to use it for?
I'm not sure what the answer you're looking for here is. My guess is that the most honest answer you would get from your child is," Everyone else has one." There are really different uses for some of the different platforms so you should probably weight each answer in the context of your child and the platform.
Facebook - You may not get many requests for using Facebook ... believe it or not, some reports say it is declining in use by our teenagers. Yogi Berra once said, "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." Facebook may be too crowded with adults to attract teenagers anymore. Nobody wants their parents to be able to see the pictures of them at a party. Many teenagers even say they have grown tired of Facebook because they are tired of the unneccessary drama that users are trying to stir.
Twitter - Many tweens migrated to Twitter in 2012 and 2013. One of the most common reasons is that parents aren't there yet so it keeps them ahead of their parents' online presence. I think it also provides them a level of connection to celebrities that some of the other platforms don't provide. I got a picture of my boys retweeted by Vince Carter (@mrvincecarter15) last year and I have to admit I got a little bit of a rush from it. You can imagine what any amount of social recognition by one of your teen's heroes would provide.
Instagram - Instagram seems to be a pretty quickly expanding social network. Teens seem to like the visual components to it and the rapidity with which they can post. It used to be popular because parents and adults weren't on the site, but we can get involved and ruin that pretty quickly (and it's started to happen already).
Snapchat - Snapchat is a way to share photos and share them with friends in a way that (in theory) cannot be stored on the phone. However, as with anything digital, there is always a loophoole and recipients can take a screen shot of the Snap and save it to their phone. When I ask my patients who have Snapchat about this, they say they only use it to take crazy or silly pictures of themselves and share them. Of course, no one I know is using them for sexting or anything less honorable (sarcasm intended).
2) Will you have access to the accounts any time you want?
Just like snooping on a cell phone, snooping around on your children's accounts without their knowledge doesn't work. What happens if you find something that concerns you? Do you address them directly, indirectly or just fret and worry about what you've found but not bring it up? You have to set a ground rule up front about what your level of supervision will be so that there are no surprises down the road.
3) How will you protect them from inappropriae content/behavior?
Social media has dangers and if we allow our children to be on them, we have to protect them from harm.
1) Predators - Unfortunately, this happens more commonly than it should. Your teenagers should not accept friend requests from people they don't know and should use caution about posting personal information.
2) Bullying - Your teeangers could be bullied online, but they could also be bullying others online. Teenagers often lose their inhibition when they are sitting at a keyboard and don't stop because they don't receive the feedback of a person getting upset like they would be if they were bullying in person.
3) Social acceptance - Teenagers commonly post things online in order to get acceptance from others. There is a growing trend of teenagers (especially girls) posting videos of themselves asking, "Am I Pretty or Ugly?" Of course, they get a mix of responses but many are aggressively negative and teenagers have a hard time moving past the negative responses or realizing that someone is simply responding to hurt them.
4) Social pressure - Teenagers have always had an intense anxiety to be cool. They have a desire to be wearing the "right" clothes, have the "right" friends and find themselves at the "right" parties. So, what has changed because of social media? All the same pressures are there but they are present in front of your teenagers 24 hours a day. They not only have to sort through all these issues, they have to post about them and read their friends posts about them, all the while struggling to keep up. It's exhausting just to think about it.
In summary, every teenager will eventually ask you for some form of social network access. Even if you don't have teenagers, it's important to start to think through some of these issues early so that you're prepared when the time comes. Discussing these issues with your teenagers before you give them access can prepare them to use social media in a healthy way.
Justin Smith, M.D., is a pediatrician at the Cook Children’s Neighborhood Clinic on 2755 Miller Ave. He has a particular interest in development, behavior and care for children struggling with obesity. In his spare time, he enjoys playing with his three young children, exercising, reading and writing about parenting and pediatric health issues. Follow Dr. Smith on Twitter, @TheDocSmitty.