My daughter is 10 and just asked if she could get an Instagram account. The most surprising part of this is not that she wants one but that most of her classmates already have one, which shows how ubiquitous social media has become.

I am not opposed to my kids having a social media presence and my daughter will likely have an Instagram account by the time she enters middle school, just as my son did. But, as someone who spends a great deal of time online and engaged on social media, I am concerned about the negativity and hostility of online culture.

#Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens, a recent special aired by CNN, shared the results of a study of 200 eighth graders and their use of social media. The study found that kids monitored their social media accounts to see what others were saying about them and to gauge their social status in terms of likes and comments. Researchers also found that social aggression was actually one way that kids boost their popularity. They lift themselves up by tearing others down through exclusion, negative comments and threats.

There has always been social conflict among tweens and teens but it has historically played out on the playground, in hallways and at gatherings beyond school. The difference now is that saying things online rather than face-to-face allows kids to avoid having to witness the impact their words have on others. Many of the kids interviewed said they say things online they would never say to someone in person.

To counter this, parents can try to keep kids offline but, in this digital age, we are then also keeping them from their peers. For example, my son’s friend arranged a meet-up exclusively through messages on Instagram and those not on Instagram missed out. So, if we want our kids to have access to the full range of social opportunities, social media is unavoidable and we must prepare them for the experience and help them become good digital citizens.  

I spoke with local writer, Galit Breen, who wrote Kindness Wins, a book that provides concrete tips on teaching kids to practice kindness online.

She offered the following advice:

  • We have to model for our kids the openness we want them to have with us. This means that when we're scrolling through Facebook or Instagram and they ask us what we're doing, we turn our phones toward them and tell them what we're posting and why, why we like someone's post who doesn't have any "likes" yet, and how we politely disagree with someone else's post. This normalizes the fact that we talk about these things and that there is nothing secretive about social media.
  • We also need to be online with our kids and their friends. This doesn't necessarily mean commenting on all of their photos or tagging them in all of ours, but having a presence sets the tone that social media isn't an unmonitored playing field. I also advocate following our kids' friends on social media if they follow us. This way, instead of me watching out for my kids and you watching out for your kids, we're all watching out for each other and each other's children and creating a kinder, safer online space for all.
  • Sit down with your kids and show them exactly how easy it is for one of their photos or comments to be screen capped and shared, even if their social media account is set to private. Before they post anything, they should imagine it on a billboard or on the side of a bus, in front of your eyes or said to their grandma. If any of these circumstances make them flinch even a tiny bit, they should pause and really consider whether or not they want to tweet that comment or post that photo. 
  • Remember that they're kids and they are going to make mistakes -- repeatedly. So everything that's important to you that they know about their online choices -- whether it's what they post, how much detail they add to their profile page, or who they friend -- tell them directly. Consider writing it down or creating an online kindness contract, not just one about who pays for what, but about how we treat other people online. And then after all that, when they inevitably make a mistake, teach them how to own it, apologize for it, fix it, and move forward. We can't make them infallible -- because that's impossible -- but we can help them make their way through.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month so it is the perfect time to talk to our kids about their lives online. Start now and keep the conversation going. 


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