In an age of fear-driven news and so-called “helicopter” parents, where should the boundaries lie when it comes to our children’s online freedom?
Picture a child learning to ride a bike. As parents we want to do everything in our power to make sure our children have a safe environment in which they can grow and learn. We baby-proof the house, we inspect daycares and schools, and we put training wheels on their bikes. The world can be a scary place, and we want to give them a taste of what to expect before we send them zooming down the street on their own. We want to cushion the bumps and falls along the way, but when does protection become coddling? This is a familiar dilemma – by now most of us have heard the terms “over-parenting” or “helicopter parenting” used to describe the moms and dads who take protection too far (for more on over-parenting, check out this TIME magazine article). However, for many of us the conversation begins to feel very unfamiliar when it comes to our children and social networking.
Research shows that 93% percent of teens are online, and of those, 73% are using social networks. Like most things in the world, there are definite benefits and risks associated with social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Rather than hashing out the details of that debate, let’s just acknowledge that each side has its facts and instead focus on what to DO about it!
Option 1: Know your child’s social network passwords. This route certainly has its perks for protective parents: you have full access to everything about your child’s profile, including privacy settings and message history. However, think about what this level of involvement means for your children. You knowing their password gives them zero privacy, and as such takes away much of the opportunity to learn responsibility and build trust. While this setup certainly helps ensure safety, it is incredibly restrictive. Instead of installing training wheels you are effectively chaining the bike to the garage!
Option 2: “Friend” your child on Facebook. This is a popular option and, along with education and awareness, many parents feel being a “friend” strikes a good balance between safety and restriction. Yet, as your child’s Facebook friend there are many aspects that you can’t monitor. You won’t necessarily be able to see what your child is posting, and his or her messages and chats will be private. This is good for the ‘freedom and responsibility’ side of the debate, but you may be leaving your child open to more risks than you realize. Education and awareness of proper social network etiquette (aka social “netiquette”) are a must, but as common sense and a recent Pew Internet study tell us, most of us have “good intentions when it comes to safe social networking behavior but don’t always act on them.” What’s more, there are many less-than-obvious risks that even the most vigilant network users often overlook. While we don’t want to restrict or coddle our children, but given the very real dangers of social networking, simply being a “friend” is akin to giving a kid with a loose wheel and faulty brakes but telling him to wear a helmet.
Option 3: Use a social media monitoring service. Depending on which one you use, a monitoring service can offer the best of both worlds when deciding your involvement in your child’s social networking habits. Rather than lording over the your son or daughter’s profile or constantly “facebook stalking” them for hints of trouble, consider using a monitoring service that will do the scanning for you. You don’t need to know that Katie thinks the boy in 2nd period is cute or Sam’s extended thoughts on Justin Bieber’s haircut. So what’s the answer? Rather than invading your child’s privacy unnecessarily or devoting your precious time to sorting through harmless posts, use a service that alerts you when your child is in danger. Of course, education and awareness are still important, but a monitoring service can give added peace of mind where simple “friending” can’t. In our bike metaphor, a monitoring service is like a safe, working bike AND a good helmet. It’s gives kids a dose of freedom and personal responsibility, while giving parents the tools to keep their kids safe from very real dangers.
In the push and pull between protection and over-parenting, which option will you choose when you kids get online?
Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, & Zikuhr (2010). Social Media & Mobile Internet Use Among Teens and Young Adults. http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2010/Social-Media-and-Young-Adults.aspx, accessed on March 26, 2011.
Purcell, Kristen. Trends in Teen Communication and Social Media Use (2011). http://www.pewinternet.org/Presentations/2011/Feb/PIP-Girl-Scout-Webinar.aspx accessed on August 10, 2011.