I remember when I was a teen. I remember how terrified I was when I had to pick up the phone and call a boy for the the first time, wondering what I might say to his mom if she answered and what I would say to him without sounding like a moron. I remember waiting by the phone, praying it would ring, trying to guess where the boy I liked was, what he was doing and why he wasn’t calling me when he said he would. I recall taking actual photos, with a camera, waiting for them to be developed and pinning the ones I liked on my locker.
Things were different back then, in some ways better, in some ways worse. Now teenagers have second by second access to each other’s location and mood. It used to break my heart when a boy I liked never called me back, but it would have broken even harder if I was able to see that actually, he was out with his friends having a grand old time and clearly not interested enough to even send a simple text. So which is worse: the wondering, the waiting or the knowing for sure?
Once my daughter started middle school, I allowed her to get a Facebook account. At first she was on it all the time. Since Facebook is used by adults and kids alike, she has now figured out that the Facebook community is a nice place to catch up with all of her extended family and friends, but hardly a place she wants to invest a lot of time. Let’s face it – Facebook is a little vanilla, isn’t it? If I can read the incredibly long and detailed status of my great aunt, there’s not a whole lot of trouble to get into on there.
The advantages as a parent are that I can see what she’s doing, what her friends are posting, WHO her friends are and the kind of things she is saying to others. However, I believe that most teens understand that Facebook is a place where their parents and even grandparents are aware of their activity, and most are smart enough to act accordingly. I like that you can block people and make things as public or private as you want. Would I say that Facebook is harmless? No, I would never say that any online community where teens gather is harmless. It always has the potential to go nuclear. However, for the most part, Facebook is fairly tame.
Instagram is an interesting alternative to Facebook. On one hand, it’s just a picture or quick video. Tone, as mentioned previously, is less of an issue. Personally, I love Instagram and I use it often. I love to flick through and quickly see the fun things my friends and family are doing. The downside to Instagram is that it feeds the beast of narcissism. How many pictures can a teen take of herself during the day? It’s not just the constant selfie action, either; it’s that Instagram negates a sense of mindfulness, of being in the moment. Kids are so anxious to document and share the experience that they often aren’t actually experiencing the experience.
Should we talk about nudity? Sexuality? My daughter has been taught from the moment that she’s been able to get on a computer that once something is on the Internet, it stays there forever. She might think she is privately sending someone something a little naughty, but once that person has it, they have it. She will be at the mercy of that person’s goodwill and sense of honor. The rule in our house has always been not to send or say anything online that you wouldn’t be willing to share with your entire class because chances are, you might have to. A lot of teens also don’t know that if they have naked pictures of themselves, their friends or boyfriends/girlfriends, it’s actually illegal. It’s even worse to forward these photos on, and their parents will end up liable for what amounts to child pornography.
Ultimately, parents must do the best they can to stay on top of social media. It’s our job to know how our kids are communicating with each other. In the same vein, the parent that sets themselves up as a Luddite is asking for trouble. We live in a new age and our children exist in a virtual community that is totally unlike the one that we grew up in. If your child was deaf, you would probably learn sign language to be able to communicate with them. It sounds extreme, but to me, the comparison is legitimate. Being aware that our kids interact with their peers differently than we did is not enough. We need to be able to interact in the same way and understand those interactions in return.
Every child should be able to feel a sense of privacy. Every parent should respect and remember how important privacy is at a certain age. However, parents should also understand that the devices and data plans their kids are using are generally not paid for by the kids. If we are paying, than we reserve a certain right to monitor what our kids are doing online with the technology we’ve trusted them with. If the kids don’t like it, hey, they can always give it back and wait until they can afford their own. Cynically, that’s called leverage. But, in today’s world, I can only say… you bet it is.