What is the “right” age for youngsters to begin texting and using social media? As the Mom of two young daughters and an educator on bullying prevention, I field this question frequently. Truly, there is great debate on the subject among professionals, along with a whole lot of hand-wringing by parents. As adults, we are all-too-aware of dangers online--both from anonymous predators and familiar “frenemies” who use the internet as a weapon. Indeed, social media sites are ripe for cyberbullying. Kids (and adults!) feel liberated to post cruel messages and taunts online without the discomfort of having to say to a peer’s face.
As with most aspects of child-rearing, there isn’t a simple one-age-fits-all guideline for starting to use social media or texting. From “safety” and “convenience” to the ever-urgent “all the other kids have them” rationales, ultimately, each family will make their own decision about what is “right” for their kids. In this day and age, almost every child will be exposed to technology sooner rather than later.
So, while I do not offer black and white answers to parents as far as “right ages,” what I do offer are suggestions for teaching kids how to use technology in ways that reflect family values and respect the dignity of their peers.
1. Choose Your Words Carefully
If you wouldn’t say something to a person’s face, don’t send it via text or the internet. Technology makes it too easy to say things that are impulsive or unkind. Also, the person reading your message can’t see your expressions or hear your tone of voice. Sarcasm and humor often get lost in translation on the ‘net, so avoid their use. Type carefully as well; avoid using ALL CAPS since they make it look like you are angry or YELLING.
2. The Internet is Not a Weapon
Don’t gossip about other people while you are online. Your words can be misinterpreted, manipulated, and forwarded without your permission. Plus, it’s not fair to talk about people when they can’t defend themselves. Likewise, social media sites should never be used to strategically exclude peers who are “on the outs” of a peer group or to “de-friend” a person after a fight.
3. Who is this Message For?
What happens in cyberspace stays in cyberspace—forever! Though you may think you are sending your private message or photo to a single recipient, keep in mind that it can be cut, pasted, and forwarded to an infinite number of people. Never post a photo or message that you wouldn’t want “everyone” to be able to view.
4. Kindness Matters
Be kind and do not ever use email to say ugly, nasty, or mean things about anyone or to anyone. ANYONE. Ever! Stop and ask yourself, “What would Mom think if she read this?” Post accordingly!
5. Take it Slow
In this world of instant messaging and constant contact, you may be tempted to say whatever comes to your mind in a given moment. Don’t do it! Slow down and think before you post whatever thought, comeback, or reaction is on your mind--especially if you are feeling an intense emotion like anger or sadness. Wait until you have had a chance to think things through and cool your head before you post a message that can’t be taken back.
Signe Whitson is an author and international educator on bullying prevention, crisis intervention, and child and adolescent emotional and behavioral health. For more information or workshop inquiries, please visit www.signewhitson.com and check out Signe's latest book, 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools.