As a school counselor, one of the questions I am most commonly asked by parents is, “What is the 'right' age for my child to begin texting and using social media?”
As with most aspects of child-rearing, there isn’t a simple one-age-fits-all guideline, so rather than making a recommendation based on chronological age or even a young person's grade in school, what I find most helpful is to talk with parents about how to best prepare kids to use technology—at whatever age they deem necessary and appropriate—in ways that respect the dignity of others and reflect the positive values of most schools, organizations, and families.
What I have come to know with certainty in recent years that it is not just the adults who are concerned about the impact of screen time on kids. The young people with whom I work have an endless number of questions for me on the subject of how to use social media safely. They beg me to tell them the real-life stories about kids using social media and don't make a peep (other than the noise from vigorously waving their hands in the air to signal that they want me to call on them next) while I share strategies on what they can do to enjoy technology and stay safe at the same time.
To be clear, I believe that kids expose themselves to significant risks when they use social media and other forms of screen time. Yet I also believe that adults do kids a frightening dis-service by banning the use of technology outright. At best, this head-in-the-sand approach ill-prepares kids to deal with the world in which they live and at worst, it creates a fervor among these young people to get their hands on social media in sneaky, risky ways.
Am I saying that five-year-olds ought to be allowed to post selfies on Instagram? Of course not. Ideally, I think kids should be introduced to the responsible use of technology in gradual, maturity-appropriate intervals, with social media use being among the last things that young people are allowed to access. There are dozens of compelling reasons to delay social media use (that are beyond the scope of this article, but here's a great post on the topic) but for the time when parents DO decide to let their kids enter this world, here are 10 guidelines that speak to young people directly and respectfully about how to be safe and behave well online:
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 facial expressions or hear your tone of voice. Sarcasm and humor often get lost in translation online, 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. What You Post is Permanent
Once you share something online, you lose control of where it goes, who can forward it, who will see it, and how it can potentially be used. As much as you might believe right now that you can trust your boyfriend with intimate photos or your best friend with secrets, you should still refrain from sending either of them any personal information online. You can’t imagine it now, but someday, that information could be distorted and used against you.
4. Who Is This Message For?
What happens in cyberspace stays in cyberspace—forever! Though you may intend to send 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.
While on the subject, be thoughtful about the photos and videos that you allow your peers to take of you. Sometimes, these images start off as fun but can be used in embarrassing ways later on. Always have all of your clothes on and don’t engage in any kind of “joking” behavior on film that can be taken out of context or used against you later on.
5. There Are No “Do Overs.”
Once you put something out there online, it’s almost impossible to take it back. Therefore, always be kind and do not ever use email to say ugly, nasty, or mean things about anyone or to anyone. Stop and ask yourself, “What would Mom think if she read this?” Post accordingly.
6. Take It Slow
In this immediate world of instant messaging and constant contact, you may be tempted to say whatever comes to your mind in a given moment. Don’t give in to the temptation. 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.
7. Unplug Every Once in a While.
It is important to be able to walk away from toxic friendships. A first line of defense in stopping cyberbullying is logging off from an account temporarily. You have the ability to instantly end a digital conversation and should plan to do so the minute you recognize that cruelty has begun. In cases where the harassment is repeated, block the aggressor altogether.
8. Don’t Talk to Strangers
Remember that message your parents gave you when you were little? It still applies today and is very important to remember when you are online. Predators lurk in cyberspace and have clever, hidden ways of soliciting personal information from young people. Never share private information online, including your full name, home address, personal photos, school name, or phone number.
The same is true for online “Followers.” Please know that there is a very, very, VERY big difference between real friends and online followers. Go for quality over quantity and be sure to invest the majority of your time and energy into your real life friendships rather than in anonymous cyber-followers.
9. Set Strong Passwords
Set strong passwords on all of your accounts to protect your identity and make sure that the only person who is speaking for you is YOU.
10. It’s (NOT!) Nice to Share
For most of your life, you’ve been told that it’s nice to share with others, but when it comes to your passwords, just (DON’T!) do it! Your accounts are your accounts. It is in your best interests not to let any friend—even a best friend—post or text from your account. Ever.
The exception to this rule is your parents. DO share your passwords with them. Seriously. Don’t think of it as a violating of your privacy. Know that this is the best way for your parents to keep you safe from physical, emotional, and even legal harm.
For more information and additional guidelines for using technology safely and respectfully, please check out 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. For workshop inquiries, visit signewhitson.com.
Whitson, S. (2014). 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.