Learning to cross the digital street

It’s a tough conversation to have. My pre-teenage child discovers that the new route to cool at school is through garnering likes and followers on social media. And I have to say no.

Of course my initial, default response has been that most social media sites have a minimum age of thirteen, and therefore my child isn’t old enough. But if not being able to join one’s friends on Instagram, Snapchat and others means they feel they are losing out, finding an answer to how to resolve their dilemma means thinking about it well before they reach this age.

You learn that as a parent your child takes you as the gold standard for what constitutes normal behaviour; copying how you act, talk and behave both consciously and unconsciously. I am a fairly avid user of social media myself, it’s a hard to say no when I set a contradictory example that interacting online with friends through Instagram, Facebook and others is “normal” for me. Making sense in the face of the glaring discrepancy between what they observe us parents do and the apparent hypocrisy of saying they can’t is therefore a tough call.

As an adult I know the identity of my online connections, I have met them in person and know what they are like “Away from Keyboard”. But a child doesn’t quite see it that way, especially when there is a growing sense of peer pressure to join, compare and compete with their friends for virtual popularity.

We want kids to be independent and make their own way in the world. But we are also responsible for their protection and to ensure they are able to conduct their lives in a way that avoids online bullying and suffering from peer pressure driven tactics when they can’t join the cool kids at school who are already allowed to use these sites.

I am a technologist, and understand the power of online connections and how it makes my life easier every day. I also recognise that in future, even more of our lives will be conducted online and that kids need to develop themselves in this space when young to be able to be better positioned to make the most of what life will offer them. But for me at least, it’s about addressing the safety concerns and protecting innocent young minds while I can.

Cyber-bullying, stalking, dealing with self-esteem. Prioritising the importance of real-life conversations when dealing with problems that life throws at you. These are all the areas where kids need to feel safe during the pre-teenager years and personally I don’t think many kids are mature enough to deal with it.

Social media is wonderful as a form of expression, creativity and sharing positive things. But it is increasingly used as a virtual mirror for emotions and feelings, somewhere an immature mind can be easily distracted or misinformed by what is represented online by friends and strangers alike.

The potential for discovering unhealthy content online, accidentally or out of misplaced curiousity is a huge concern to me. Pre-teens are already going through a rollercoaster of emotions as they take tiny steps toward their own independence and puberty, and this important phase of their life is prone to extremes. A bad hair day can can result in feeling ugly, a feeling of fleeting sadness can be mistaken for depression. This is a very typical experience for children at this age.

However the massively connected world of social networks takes us a down a darker path. Instagram has 300 million users that upload 70 million photos and videos daily. Try searching for #depressed on Instagram and you rapidly find communities within this huge user base of all ages who share their raw and unfiltered emotions visually; the effect to an immature mind when seeing these without an adult being aware can be potentially devastating. I don’t want to go there now, nor do I want to open that Pandora’s Box for my young children.

So while it is a challenging conversation to have, it feels right that social media remains off limits for my kids for now. Learning when and how it will be best to introduce social media to them in future is a tricky question, but I hope to figure it out over time.

Some good resources for researching the topic further:

Image: Shutterstock / scyther5

About Alastair