My oldest son is 12 and going into 7th grade. To say that raising a tween/tween in the golden age of social media is a bit challenging is a huge understatement. Parents these days need to be incredibly vigilant, knowledgeable, and savvy when it comes to navigating social media. I imagine it’s similar to working for the CIA. You are always on alert and spend lots of time scouring through irrelevant data looking for clues. This job must be done consistently and thoroughly, as the self-esteem, safety, and raw education of your child is on the table. I am not a parent or professional who believes that you don’t have to monitor these things. No matter how smart, trusting, or mature you think your kid is, you have to watch what’s going on. In an instant, your son or daughter can post a comment or an image that can directly alter the course of their day, school year, or their life. What’s most frightening is that many adults forget that children of any age, and often until their mid twenties, do not posses the developmental skills and insight to make healthy choices or show good judgement when posting or commenting within social media.
With that said, my son was constantly coming home begging for Instagram. “People at school are making fun of me,” he said. “I am the only person I know who doesn’t have it”, he said. “Everyone at school is always talking about things on Instagram and I can’t talk about it with them”, he said. Yes, he will be in sales when he grows up. I also knew from my clinical work, talking to other parents, and doing some Instagram searching myself, that for the most part, what he was saying was true (minus the massive dramatic performances, stomping, door slamming, and exaggerations – I am his mother after all). I did have to accept that his daily life and the culture of 6th grade included social media. We held off and held off, and made it through 6th grade without Instagram – barely. We realized, however, that with social media becoming more and more a daily part of young people’s lives, it was imperative that we begin to allow him some level of access so we could closely monitor, guide, and educate him along the way – at least while he was still willing to listen to what we were saying.
One of the biggest mistakes that I see parents make (and I am not immune to it either) is that when they see that their child wants or desires something, they do not make the child work for it. We saw this as a prime opportunity to create a carrot for our son to reach in order to achieve Instagram. Both clinically and personally, I have seen the reward be that much sweeter and more precious when hard work was involved to achieve it. It was amazing how quickly he was able to achieve his goal, and even surprised himself!
We then began talking about appropriate and inappropriate comments and posts. We discussed that he needed to ask himself a few questions before he commented or posted:
1. Is this something that Mom and Dad would be happy or proud to see?
2. Is this something I could show my grandfather?
3. Is this something I want on my high school or college application?
4. What does this say about who I am?
We do not for one second think he is going to go through each of these questions every time, but with consistent reminders and discussions about it, I do believe it will become a persistent thought in his head. It’s a way to self regulate and give him a healthy template from which to function, rather than randomly and impulsively responding to the social media feed. I also have been extremely vigilant in praising the comments or posts he makes that are appropriate. “I love that picture you posted – it’s great.” I really like your username you picked – it really says who you are.” “What do you think about what “blank” posted? Do you think that was a good choice?” “Did you see the comments back and forth between “blank” and “blank”? What do you think that’s all about?” This type of dialogue completely opens the lines of communication between you and your child as well as reaffirms that you are involved and watching.
Almost a month in, he is doing very well with it so far. Now, with Instagram, he knows that I have his id and password. He also knows that if I see something I don’t like, I’m going to discuss it with him. The threat that he will lose Instagram at the drop of a hat if he posts irresponsibly is also a great motivator. I keep his account active on my phone and scan it multiple times a day. Boy, have I learned and seen a lot. There are multiple relationships between 6th graders on display through images, love comments, and emojis (they are those little colorful icons). When I was in 6th grade, there were a few relationships in my class, but none were so publicly on display. There are kids asking for others to rate them with quizzes or through comments – on their intelligence, their looks, their athleticism, their social status. There are comments or images that begin innocently enough, but then are misinterpreted and fights erupt right below an image. I’ve seen images of brand new expensive sneakers, funny videos from Vine, sleepovers, and countless declarations of forever friendship and never ending love. I’ve sadly also seen desperation, wanting to fit in, and most recently a few images that make me question whether or not to contact a parent.
This experience so far has brought about a whole new level of discussion, education and teachable moments between my son and me. He knows I am monitoring both him and others. We chat about different posts and I get his view on what he thinks about them. We talk about why certain images might seem okay at first, but may mean something different to other people. We talk about the fact that every post or comment he makes is showing everyone the kind of person he is and what he values. Most importantly, this has opened up the floodgates of communication and allowed for true learning and growth to take place for both of us. It’s still absolutely terrifying.