By Sierra Filucci, Common Sense Media
As parents, our first priority is to keep our kids safe. And when we hear news about a teen suicide related to online bullying or a kid being killed after meeting a stranger through a social media app such as Kik Messenger, our first instinct is often to panic. Maybe we take away our kid's phone or ban all social media -- or do neither and just feel helpless.
While parenting in the digital age can feel overwhelming -- especially since we're the first generation of parents figuring this out -- it doesn't have to be so scary. Remember that high-profile incidents will get attention in the news, but most kids are using social media to connect with friends, share funny videos, and meet peers with similar interests. And often the kids who get into major trouble online are wrestling with issues in the real world, too (see below).
Here are some tips for being a social media-savvy parent:
Although technology is constantly evolving and changing, kids are still kids. Tweens and teens have always looked for ways to define their identities and connect with their friends. Taking away technology won't change that underlying need. What's different is how technology expands the ways that kids can express themselves (video, memes, silly photos) and connect with one another (texting, Snapchat, gaming). It's exciting and new, but kids still need boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable online behavior.
Just because your kids are using apps you've never heard of doesn't mean they don't need your guidance and support as they figure it all out. At 12 and 13 -- when many kids first start using social media -- they may not be developmentally ready to deal with some of what they encounter. For example, they may need help understanding that what they do online isn't always private, and they may not have the foresight to see how their online actions will affect them in the future. Ask them to show you the apps they're using and tell you why they like them. Keep the lines of communication open by being as nonjudgmental as possible. And if you see a problem -- such as bullying, inappropriate sexual content, or the sharing of private information -- step in.
As soon as you figure out Snapchat, your kids will move on to the next thing. It's worth trying to keep up, but even if you can't, you can learn about the different types of social media and the issues that go with them. Again, asking your kids what they're using -- or what their friends are using -- is a great way to stay in the know.
Finding like-minded parents in your kid's social circle can be a lifesaver. Even if your kids won't talk to you, sometimes they'll talk to -- or even friend or follow -- a peer's parent. And if you can find a small group of parents to share information -- from the latest Instagram buzz to the funniest Vine meme -- you'll be better able to understand what your kids are talking about when they bring up a problem.
Teach Kids Digital Literacy
Many kids -- starting in middle school at least -- get some kind of digital literacy lesson in school. Often this covers Internet safety basics, such as how to choose a strong password or find trustworthy information online. But it's worth asking your kid's teacher, principal, or PTA to institute a comprehensive program (such as Common Sense Media's Digital Citizenship curriculum or Connecting Families initiatives) that covers social media behavior. Consider sharing Common Sense Media's Digital Compass game with middle school kids, too.
Look at "the Whole Kid"
When kids have problems on social media, it's usually not isolated to an app or website. Social media often amplifies and extends what's happening in real life -- kids who are cyberbullied may experience bullying at school, too. And kids who are at risk for all sorts of behavioral issues -- due to poverty, family difficulties, medical issues, or social challenges -- are also at risk for social media problems. If your kids are struggling in real life -- their grades are down, they've become socially isolated, their teachers report repeated behavior incidents, or they're being bullied -- pay extra attention to their social media lives, not by banning something that could be a rare outlet for expression and connection but by checking in on their activity, just like you would with any other part of their lives.
Director of Research Michael Robb contributed to this article.
Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org.