"When can I get a cell phone? And I mean a smart one."
"But I am being social! I'm playing Minecraft with all my friends, you just can't see them. "
Is social media something you love, hate or find just plain confusing as a parent? This is the era of digital engagement and who is more socially engaged than our youngsters? But what of us older and wiser parents? Do we really have to learn all about Snapchat? Can you teach an old dog new tricks? And equally important, can you teach a little puppy to play safely and respectfully on the internet?
In short: yes, and more. At least that was the clear message at a recent symposium held in New York City entitled "Just a Click Away! How Social Media Influences our Children's Social Development." I was keen enough on the topic and the credentials of the speakers that I flew down and back just for the occasion.
The keynote speaker was Dr. Mega Subramaniam, along with panelists Dr. Orit Goldhammer, Janine Francolini and Dr. Scott Gaynor, all of whom have extensive experience working with children in diverse and inspiring educational settings.
I was so impressed with their humanistic approach. The entire group was openly and unanimously in support of the benefits of social media for children -- if executed properly. That was certainly music to my ears. I also believe the positives outweighing the negatives when it comes to social media. While some parents are so frightened by the negatives that they keep their kids off line entirely.
Social media certainly isn't a mandatory pastime. But think of what parents and kids miss by taking the complete abstinence route? For example, during the day of the symposium, I was getting "I love you" texts from my daughter back in Toronto; my nephew saw that I was in town on my Facebook status, so he arranged to meet me after the symposium; I tweeted throughout the presentation so my followers could benefit from the presentation, too; and on the way home, I picked up a copy of The New Yorker and read an article about the incredible success in providing teens crisis counselling via text messaging. Pretty remarkable, I think.
But Dr. Subramaniam kicked off her inspired keynote by reminding me about the reality of this whole social media thing: "It's complicated."
That means no quick and simple, black and white answers for weary and overwhelmed parents to embrace. Yet, over the hour as she presented both research and personal stories, she managed to make organization out of what could be seen as chaos and contradiction.
Since there are no "one-size-fits-all" solutions, I present to you key concepts, tips, advice and how-to's that were covered by experts, either during the panel discussion, Q and A or the keynote so you have some take-aways, too:
1. A strong relationship between parent and child serves as a protective factor in keeping kids safe online. It's all about relationships, right? Maximize your own.
2. Start your discussion early and have on-going dialogues, just as we do with other complicated topics like sex and drugs.
3. Children need social media mentors -- be sure someone teaches them how to behave online, you or an older experienced teen. They can, and must be taught essential skills.
4. It's a constantly changing environment, so stay up to date. When your child wants to try a new app or platform, sit down and learn about it together. Investigate the privacy settings, how sharing works, etc.
5. Manage limits and boundaries that you feel are acceptable for your children. Use online resources like Common Sense Media or Get Cyber Safe to help inform your decisions. Ultimately, it's up to you.
6. Youth will self-impose limits on their own social media engagement if given a chance to exercise that option slowly over time. Self-regulation is a skill to be taught.
7. Teach them and then trust them. The parent who acts as "Inspector" and is too restrictive then snoops and stalks instead of supervises, usually yields the worst outcomes.
8. Look for age-appropriate sites designed for kids that have a social element. A good starter is Scratch.
9. Read the terms and conditions instead of simply ticking the box to enter the site. Most people don't read these long winded pages, and the developers know this.
10. Check your privacy settings, and then check again.