Social Media and Parenting; Do we want to be ‘friends’ with our children?
“Studies have shown that parents who are able to enter the ‘social media world’ of their children in a supportive and non-invasive way increase the sense of connectedness between themselves and their adolescents.”
Recently I read that one of my favourite outspoken actors, Stephen Fry, had decided to cease using his Twitter account amidst ‘fears for his safety’ whilst shooting his current film. This will, undoubtedly dismay his some 7.8million Tweet followers, but it lead me to consider why he needed to take such a drastic media measure. Surely Mr Fry could continue to send updates to us, his adoring fans, without compromising his safety?
Although this is shrouded in typical media hype, it appears that Stephen Fry’s mental health suffers significantly from the ‘aggression and unkindness’ he receives on his Twitter account. Explicitly speaking about his struggle with Bipolar Disorder, Mr Fry appears, to me at least, to experience the common phenomena of identity struggles which come from being at the whim of a multitude of social media ‘friends’.
Now, Stephen is well-passed adolescence, and hence has a few decades of life experience to hopefully assist him in navigating the often treacherous path of social media. But what about our youth? If children and young people are as influenced by social media ‘friends’ as they are by their traditional peers, this leaves them dangerously open to extreme bullying and confusion around identity formation, not to mention the well-publicised risks of internet stalkers and those adults who may wish to exploit or abuse them.
It must also be pointed out that social media can have a vastly positive influence on individuals and communities when used correctly and with discretion. How many times now have we heard of speedy and selfless calls to action in the face of a disaster through the use of social media? Or of family members and loved ones connecting with each other in a way never before possible across vast geographical distances and isolation? Similarly, young people now have access to a multitude of positive role models, inspirational communities, support services and like-minded people through the internet which has previously been limited only to those in their immediate vicinity.
The years of 12-18 are a time of developing one’s individual identity, of testing out the boundaries of their own lives and rules and experimenting with what their adult future may look like. It is a time of developing intimate relationships and learning how to navigate the challenges presented in such intimate dealings. It is also when a person is most vulnerable to bad habits and influence.
For the youth of today, this means that, as well as needing to ‘fit in’ to a group of peers at school, and discover one’s own talents and interests within their daily face to face interactions, young people are now faced with the formation of their identities through the influence and watchful eyes of their facebook friends, Twitter followers and other social media companions. What a terrifying concept and how very confusing! It would take a very strong and stable person to feel ‘at home’ in such an expansive and eclectic mix of people.
But this is normalized nowadays, and even expected. Parents and caregivers, although maybe not understanding why, or feeling completely comfortable with the idea, generally accept that social media is a very large part of their child’s transition into adulthood.
Although the risks of social media has been well-publicised (namely regarding ‘unsafe’ adults), it appears that the greatest risk to our young people is that of cyber bullying – by both social media friends and acquaintances they would usually be more readily able to avoid. Cyber technology provides new tools for people who already engage in aggressive behaviors in the physical world to victimise peers in cyberspace. The Head of ChildLine UK recently stated that the rise of cyber-bullying on social media had exacerbated the problem of youth suicide in Britain, as it meant young people “couldn’t escape” bullying.
But there IS hope!! Studies have shown that parents who are able to enter the ‘social media world’ of their children in a supportive and non-invasive way, not only increase their child’s ability to moderate their connections, and to disclose concerns they encountered online to their parents, but that engaging in social networking with their children also increases the sense of connectedness between parents and adolescents.
Despite concerns about ‘invasion of privacy’, these studies highlight the important role of family and care-givers as the dominant source of digital safety information absorbed by teenagers. Surprisingly, factual and appropriate information provided by parents and care-givers about risks and safe online interactions is shown to be more readily accepted and acted upon by teenagers, than that of information they receive online.
It is heartening to hear that, as parents, our children continue to need our guidance throughout these turbulent developmental periods. The question then is, how do we, as parents, protect our children from the most risky aspects of social media, whilst also respecting their rights to privacy and social engagement that is so paramount to their development at this time?
The ultimate tool in creating safety for our children and youth is through the ongoing development of trusting and healthy relationships which enable us to provide boundaries which are seen as positive and necessary by the young person involved. Open communication, engaging with our children through their mediums and providing ongoing opportunities for them to express themselves and their ideas or concerns is paramount.
Start conversations with them and ask them what they feel about social media. By giving them an opportunity to use their own words and experiences, it will allow you a more open and personal experience of your individual child’s social media world. Show an interest, be willing to learn and be patient.
If the internet appears a daunting place for you, why not invite your child to become the ‘expert’ and guide you through the vastness of cyberspace? Showing an interest in their activities, and remembering that they also have valid and useful skills to share can be a great start to developing an online connectedness with your young person.
Let them teach you what they know. Show genuine interest in their online lives and find ways for them to invite you in – perhaps starting with an online game of ‘Farmville’…In this way we can continue to engage with our youth in positive and meaningful ways, and role model to them that they are still worthy, exciting and loved individuals.
Community Training Australia Module 3 CHC50413 Diploma of Youth Work Learning Resource V 30.08.2014
Coyne Sarah M., Padilla-Walker Laura M., Day Randal D., Harper James, and Stockdale Laura. January 2014. A Friend Request from Dear Old Dad: Associations Between Parent-Child Social Networking and Adolescent Outcomes. Downloaded from: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/248704450
GS Mesch (2009) Parental Mediation, Online Activities and Cyberbullying. Downloaded from: http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/cpb.2009.0068
Vauna Davis (2012) Interconnected But Underprotected? Parents’ Methods and Motivations for Information Seeking on Digital Safety Issues. Downloaded from: http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/cyber.2012.0179