Kids & Social Media: The Positives & Negatives of Social Media for Kids by Elisa Schmitz
Social media has transformed the way people interact with each other, but it can pose some challenges for kids. Most social media sites have age limits for use, from 13 for Facebook and Twitter to 18 for Google+, but with little reinforcement, younger kids can and do bypass them (sometimes with their parents’ help) to set up their own account. Sites designed for 6- to 13-year-olds – like Togetherville and Disney’s Club Penguin – provide a social media experience with a little more supervision. Parents must give permission for kids’ accounts on these sites, which have other safety features like parental control of online friends and moderated comments.
Texting, email and instant messaging are other forms of social media. Kids use computers at home or school for social media, but cell phones also play a major role in their online social interaction. Here are some tips on kids and social media, brought to you by our friends at U.S. Cellular.
Through social media, kids can strengthen communication skills, learn, be creative and find support from peers with common interests. They also strengthen their technical skills, which isn’t just an advantage but a necessity for this generation. Kids with special needs can benefit from social media, as it provides a way to practice social skills and communication without the pressure of face-to-face interaction.
Social media can help kids develop their sense of self and learn empathy as they navigate sites and begin to see what they like and don’t like and how others react to situations around them. But with the freedom of online expression comes the risk of finding themselves in a potentially harmful situation.
Aside from the fact that social media can be addictive – taking time away from homework, face-to-face interaction, even sleep – a lack of social and emotional development can lead children into some bad situations. Kids are still learning tone of voice and other social cues, which can be hard to convey and interpret accurately in texts and posts. Their judgment isn’t always sound either, which can lead to poor decisions.
Children who reveal personal information like address and phone number on social media sites are targets for sexual predators and scammers looking to hack their parents’ accounts by using the info to crack passwords. Sexting – texting sexually explicit or suggestive messages and pictures – worries some parents, but according to a recent Associated Press survey, only about 1 percent of kids 10 to 17 have actually sent any sexually explicit pictures.
One of the biggest concerns is cyber-bullying, which ranges from flaming (online fights using angry or vulgar language) to daily harassment. Bullies text or post gossip or images meant to damage someone’s reputation. They may use another child’s log-in information to pose as that child, posting things that will embarrass her or get her in trouble. They also use social media to exclude, getting peers to snub kids online and in real life. Small incidences that occur in real life can morph into full-blown confrontations online, often aided by the misguided sense of anonymity or detachment kids have when posting or texting. In its extreme, cyber-bullying can even lead to threats of physical harm or suicide.
Handling Negative Situations
Experts say peer pressure often is a factor in inappropriate social media use with kids. They suggest collecting cell phones at tween and teen get-togethers as a preventive measure, but online risks may not be so easy to avoid, especially on weekends and after school, when kids have more time for unsupervised online access.
If your child encounters negative online behavior, don’t ignore it but address the issue right away. Children may be reluctant to talk to you, but signs of trouble include your child not wanting to go to school, hiding his online activities or acting agitated after being online. Save all evidence of inappropriate communications, and tell your child not to retaliate or respond with anger. Set your child’s profile or cell number to block incoming messages from bullies or predators. Contact the bully’s parents if cyber-bullying is the issue, and if you think your child may be in physical danger, call the police.
Schools may or may not help with cyber-bullying. School policies on cyber-bullying can be vague, especially for behaviors that occur off school grounds. Schools that do decide to get involved may encounter legal challenges to their authority. Some schools are starting to be more proactive, though, instituting anti-cyber-bullying policies and cyber etiquette education.
Setting Limits and Online Etiquette
It’s up to parents to decide when their child is ready to participate in social media. In addition to age, things like maturity and responsibility should be factors in this decision, which may mean explaining to your 13-year-old why she can’t have a Facebook profile even if some of her friends do.
When you decide your children are ready for social media, make them aware of basic online etiquette. Explain to kids that what they post online is a reflection of themselves and will be out there forever. Teach them to think twice before posting something in anger or of a questionable nature. Limit use of online devices to common rooms of the home, and set time limits (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours online daily) and nightly curfews for social media.
Experts recommend open communication and clear family rules rather than spying on kids with monitoring programs. Talk to your kids daily about their cell phone and online interactions, and keep connected online as well. Make a rule that you and your child become Facebook friends, and check in with their profiles (and their friends’ profiles) often. Get your children’s usernames and passwords and let them know that you will periodically access their social media and cell accounts as a condition of having them. Setting clear rules and limits allows your children to have some independence online without totally giving up your ability to parent.