Inevitably, the day came when my daughter, now 14, asked if she could have a WhatsApp account. Then an Instagram account, then others. It was about three years ago.
I felt kind of overwhelmed with the requests and how to answer, but, like in so many other areas, I knew saying a simple “no” or a simple “yes” was not a good answer and I would have to do some work. I do have a Facebook, LinkedIn accounts, and a few others, but I was never too active online. I like and value my privacy. I don’t like to broadcast where I am, or where I am spending my vacations, or what I’m having for lunch. I’m way less digitally active than most people I know. Honestly, I am sort of proud of it.
I had seen multiple articles about the dangers of social media for kids, and technology for that matter. I’m sure we all have. Google “dangers of social media” and you are bombarded with millions of results – some of which seem credible, others not so much. Proliferation of content and being able to filter reliable information is definitely one of the challenges we have to deal with today.
And by dangers I am not just talking about the potential online predators, looking to take advantage of new technologies to find and target children. Even without that, Instagram, Facebook and other platforms are truly creating parallel realities, hierarchies and values, and lots of people value them more than the “here and now reality”. When we have kids (and adults) wanting to be YouTubers, influencers, and other “occupations”, when we have kids (and adults) valuing more the number of followers or likes, or whatever measures our digital success, more than “real” friendship or what they are learning in school, I feel we have a problem. They are putting their screen personas above their real selves. Likes and followers above friendships.
I am really concerned about the long-term effects on children, and my kids in particular (my daughter is also setting a precedent that will soon be followed by her two younger siblings). We also start to be aware that our digital footprints are a lot more permanent than we often think, and whatever we write and say can “go viral”, taken out of context, and be used against us years or decades later. And kids are of course rebels by nature, and often say the most ridiculous things just for the sake of it, sometimes without even knowing the meaning of what they are saying, just for the shock effect. Unfortunately, social media does not offer the benefit of forgetfulness, especially for some of the stupidest things we have all done.
But the world does not stop, and I do believe our lives will be increasingly more digital. I believe social media and digital literacy will be as important to my kids generation, as the ability to use a computer was for mine. And I learned to use a computer not by taking classes, but by playing games with friends, and trying my first steps writing code for fun (which my parents didn’t see much use for, but tolerated because my grades were ok). Furthermore, other kids in their schools and social circles are also using social media and messaging apps, and leaving them out of it is also excluding them from that socialization, which is so important for kids to learn to live in society. WhatsApp is what my daughter’s friends use to plan to go watch a game, or keep in touch after school and comment on the topic of the day. My daughter is still in touch with her friends from years ago, even as some of them moved to other countries or even continents. It is great that they are able to do that, and something that my generation couldn’t do, at least as easily as they can today.
Saying “no” was just burying my head in the sand (besides, I truly believe that the forbidden fruit is the most coveted one). Also, just saying “yes”, without any other conditions, was setting her up for too much risk. It is true that kids have a way with technology (do you speak emoji?), but they are as socially naïve as we were at their age. We sometimes forget that.
So, our response (mine and her mother’s) was to say “yes, with conditions” and try and set some common sense rules that would let my daughter dip her toes in and learn, without being exposed to too many risks. Also, we tried to educate her as much as possible, so that she can make her own decisions, as I know we will often not be there to say what to do. We started with:
- Stay safe: don’t publish your current location, routines, codes, etc.; Don’t connect or engage in conversations with anyone you don’t know in real live. In case of doubt, don’t.
- Maintain discretion and morals: don’t write or say anything on social media you would not want your professor to read aloud to the whole class, or to your parents; don’t publish anything, photos included, you would not want to show your grandparents (we actually set a no photos policy initially); don’t make fun of others;
- Enjoy it with moderation: stay in touch with friends and colleagues, especially when you are apart, share your experiences, learn; Make sure the phone is put away often, and enjoy time face-to-face.
As a final and personal note, these are decisions where parents need to be aligned. I am a divorced father, but I strongly feel these are decisions and rules where both parents need to be aligned. Fortunately, I have a good relationship with my ex-wife, and we are able to discuss and adopt some common rules for the kids.
Obviously these rules and my own thinking are far from perfect and still evolving. I would love to hear the experiences from others and see what’s common and what’s different.