Parents, Kids, and Social Media

Posted on July 21, 2016
If there is a lesson that should be taught in grade school, as young as possible, and repeated throughout grade school years, it's how kids should behave online.

I am in the unfortunate position of having to speak to a group of young girls about their online activity because of a painful incident with one of them. I won't give more details than that -- let's just say this is close to home for me, and this whole scenario prompted this post. It's a bit of a long rant, but it's been on my mind for the past few weeks, and I feel writing it up might help some parents out.

The Problem

Some parents are oblivious of the potential harm social media can do to their kids, or that their kids even have access to social media outlets. I'll take it a step further... parents are unaware of the harm that may come from giving a 10-year-old a smart phone.

Now I know some people wonder, "What is a 10-year-old doing with a phone?". There are numerous scenarios where they are necessary, like separated parents, parents with more than one job, kids in after school care, some kids taking buses and trains to and from school, etc. The intention is usually a good one - to stay connected with your child in a busy world.

And, let's face it, there are some people who just want their 10-year-old to have the best damn gadget out there, no matter the cost.

Whatever the case is, kids have phones. It's a reality.

The problem is, the child (and I want to emphasize the word CHILD) is given a device without anyone telling them how to use it. Yes, it's a phone, and you can call and text with them, but it's also their link to social media, email, videos, photos, and all that can go wrong in the internet universe.

You wouldn't send you kid to cross the street without telling them to look both ways, watch out for crazy drivers, and follow the crosswalks signs or crossing guards. We tell our kids to watch out for strangers, and to not take anything from people they don't know. We warn them about the dangers of the outside world, drugs, bullies, smoking... There's a long list of things we teach our kids about how to behave when they're out of the house and not in our care.

It's time we add 'how to act on social media' to the list.

Educate Your Children

Kids are sponges. They learn from lessons taught by their parents and teachers. Sometimes, they listen to a babysitter, a coach, another parent, a security guard, or anyone with authority because, hey, we're adults, so we must know a thing or two, right? Whatever they don't learn at school or at home, they learn through experience. If we don't teach children good social media habits, they will learn as they go, and that's scary.

From early childhood, we repeat messages like: 

  • "Don't do drugs."
  • "Stay in school."
  • "Smoking kills."
  • "Stay away from strangers."
  • "Study hard."
  • "Respect your elders."
  • "Stop Bullying."

Kids listen. They may roll their eyes when we repeat ourselves for the millionth time, but they do listen. Below is a list of things I have been telling my daughter since we got her her first iPod with WiFi connection. The message has changed slightly now that she's in high school, but it's basically the same.

  • Don't take inappropriate photos or videos that you feel you can't share with me. Period.
  • Don't post videos, photos or messages on social media that you feel you can't share with me. 
  • Don't send videos, photos or messages in emails or texts that you feel you can't share with me.
  • Don't share ANY personal information over email, text, or social media. This includes your full name, address, phone number, age, birthday, school, etc. 
  • Don't EVER accept a friend request or respond to an email or text from a person/number you don't recognize.  
  • Anything you post in an email, text, or social media site can be shared with other people you don't know. You have absolutely no control over this
  • Your online "friends" or "connections" are not your real friends. Your real friends are the ones you see and have conversations with in person, in real life.
  • What you post online may stay online forever. 
  • Your entire family is on social media. We are on every platform. We can see everything you post. 

I know it's a lot of bullets, but kids have to be taught.

Add on the additional dimensions of cyber-bullying and teen relationships (starting in middle school!!) and you can see how the list can grow. From sending sexy photos to their true love or BFF, to calling someone a slut online because the internet brings out bravery in the ugliest forms, we have to teach our youth to refrain from the temptation. 

And as they get older, into the high school years, it's not just about family alone. It's about employers, college admissions, scholarship foundations, and other external entities that will judge our children based on their online presence. Their futures are at risk with bad online behavior.

My kid is too smart for that...

The excuses are abundant. Whether parents claim they are too busy making ends meat, or they don't really understand or participate in social media, or they believe their brilliant child would never succumb to the temptations of posting inappropriate things online... there are many excuses. We are now starting to realize the dangers and have to, as a society, change our approach.

For those who don't know about the ins and outs of social media, find someone who does. There is no shame in asking for help when dealing with children. A father asked me to talk to these girls about this issue because he didn't know how. That takes courage. He's a hero in my book, and potentially to some of the girls I will talk to. 

And if you notice that a parent may not be aware of these issues, or hasn't yet had the chance to talk to their kids, please step up. I know this is a tough task because it feels obnoxious to tell someone "how to parent".

Let me put it this way... if you see a child running into the street, you wouldn't just let them, would you? You'd do your best to stop them from potentially getting run over by a truck, right? And what if you knew the kid was planning on running into the street -- wouldn't you notify the parent or try to inform the kids of the hazards of doing so?

Take a chance and say something. You might be doing more good than you think.

Parental Controls

So, I know some parents are saying, "My kids are good. I know my tech and I block access to emails, texts, and social media from my 12-year-old's computer, phone, etc..."

You can't solely rely on this.

What about the phone he borrows from a friend during lunch? Or the computer he uses at a friend's house? Libraries and schools have computers available for students that aren't necessarily "protected". Are you all tech-armored on those outlets too?

You have to talk to your kids about proper behavior even if you've barbed-wired their online experience at home.  It's not enough to shield our kids from the dangers, we have to teach them how to handle them on their own. You wouldn't keep a kid home until he's 16 to make sure he won't get hit by a car, would you? Even when you're at your 4-year-old's side crossing the street, holding his hand, you tell him, "Look both ways..." It may be years before they cross the street by themselves, yet we start the message young, right?

I'm not saying we should teach this at age 4, but it should start before children gets their first device, or start using the computer or tablet on their own. Schools should play a role in this the way they promote anti-bullying and drug-free environments.

Life And Death

I use life-and-death metaphors to put emphasis on this message on purpose. Negative online behavior may lead your child down a horrific path. Check out Megan Meier's Foundation statistics on bullying, cyber-bullying, suicides, and mental health. If your child is experiencing cyber bullying, or if you need to teach your kids about it, please take a look at the National Crime Prevention Council.

And whenever you hear news about cyber-bullying or a suicide caused by cyber-bullying, make sure your kids know about it. They will be able relate directly with all the kids involved. Turn it into a life lesson. "See, this is what happens when..."

Let's teach our kids how to act online so they can help themselves avoid these scenarios. Remember, one inappropriate video, photo or text can land in the hands of a vindictive ex or a morally deficient classmate who will use it against your child on social media. It's a very real possibility, and the emotional backlash is painful for some of these young people. In fact, the scenario that occurred among this group of young girls falls in this category. It's broken my heart. It is a scenario that, I fear, will be commonplace if we don't do something about it.

That's the end of my rant. I am preparing a bullet list for these girls, something easy to remember. I'm so nervous about this discussion, but I know it has to be done. They are awesome kids, and I would hate for any of them to experience the negatives of the online world completely unprepared. All I can do is try to educate them, warn them, maybe even threaten them and put the fear of HELL in them... and hope for the best.

Wish me luck.

~ * ~


  1. Kids aren't the only ones with very bad online behavior. Adults and celebrities are horrible examples and not even being apologetic about it.

    While I agree with your intent, I remember being a teen (a loooong time ago!). If my mom gave me a "Don't do this" list, it'd be off to the races to see how many "old fogey" rules I could break. After all, parents are old and clueless. They don't get that the world has changed. They're scared of new things. For instance, my mom refused to let me get pierced ears at 16 because it was "barbaric." The second I turned 18, I got my ears pierced. I had a few infections. So? I learned to be careful about antiseptic and I got to wear great earrings - just like all my friends.

    IMO, you can't fight teenage hormones urging them to find their own, separate path in life. Teens hate being dictated to - whether by parents or in school. As with the best classes I had, you need to teach the kid to fish, not make them take one you caught and know is safe. Mistakes will be made. Parents need to be vigilant but not over-react in the blame department.

    1. That's why the message should start young. There are still people who smoke in middle/high school, but the numbers are way lower than decades ago, partly due to the consistent message that has been pushed in our society.

      And control is definitely not the answer. But guidance helps.

      These kids are in the 14-17 year-old-age, and that's what makes me nervous. I'm certain that many of them have parents that have not given them any guidance on how to behave on social media. They're learning it as they go, through bad experiences of other people (and celebrities) and trying to figure it out. In the meantime they're taking inappropriate photos and messages and sending it everywhere without really understanding the consequences. They need to know the consequences.

      It's better late than never. :-/