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How to prepare kids for social media use

When Alexi McCammond, the newly appointed editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, stepped down after the resurfacing of several racist and homophobic tweets from her teen years, parents had a host of reactions.

Some were aghast that someone who’d uttered such things would, even 10 years later, be given a top-notch job at a publication known for its anti-racist coverage. (It didn’t help that her apology when the tweets were unearthed in 2019 left some doubting her sincerity.)

Others were more forgiving, pointing to her age at the time of the offensive tweets: 17. “I did and said so many insensitive and offensive things when I was young, but had the chance to learn and do better,” they said. “How can I make sure my own kids don’t make McCammond’s mistakes?”

Whatever your opinion on McCammond and others like her, who lose jobs or slots at college because of their hurtful and inappropriate public language on social media, it’s clear that children and teenagers need to learn how to safely, pro-socially communicate online. Children and teens use social media more than anything else on their phones, and 95% of teens have access to a smartphone.

“We have wholeheartedly adopted social media without considering the consequences,” said Sarah Domoff, associate professor at Central Michigan University, who specializes in kids and social media.

Those consequences are very real, both for the people who make inappropriate comments and those who weather the hurt caused by them. A 2021 survey by education and career company Kaplan found that 65% of college admissions officers they polled “see no issue with social media being part of the admissions equation,” and 58% reported that what they found on students’ social media profiles had a negative impact.

“You hope that someone is greater than the sum of their tweets, but you can always be reduced to your tweets,” said Devorah Heitner, author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World.”

What should parents do to prepare their kids to be good online citizens, and help those hurt by kids who aren’t? Here’s where to start.

Have a “birds and the bees” social media talk

Children and teens are using the very adult tool of social media long before their brains are fully developed. “Kids are going to likely post things that five years from now they’re going to regret, whether it be a silly photo or something more extreme or offensive or harmful,” Domoff said. As parents, we have to ask: “What are you going to do to make sure that that doesn’t happen?”

Before giving your child access to social media, set expectations for age limits, time limits, people your children can interact with, and what is OK or not OK to say.

“Having empathy for others and understanding that people come from different backgrounds and that there’s real harm that comes from stigmatizing others is key,” Domoff said. “We have to help them identify if the content is negative and ask: What would happen if you posted this? How would someone else feel?”

Parents can proactively engage kids in tough but necessary discussions about race, class, sexuality and gender, to create empathy and understanding. “We can and should point out to kids when racist ideas and actions and behaviors are wrong,” said Tara L. Conley, assistant professor in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University and Race and Technology Practitioner Fellow at Stanford University. “If they’re old enough to experience racism, they’re old enough to talk about race.”

They can also talk to their friends if they see them posting hurtful content. “When it comes to the pain that is inflicted on other people who are your neighbors, you have to stand up. You have to say something when it’s wrong,” Conley said.

Teach them that social media is not private, and it’s forever

A child may think that if they have few followers, are texting in a private group chat or are commenting in a private Facebook group, or even a Google doc, that what they say is protected. But that’s never the case.

“The nature of communicating behind the screen reduces our blinders,” Domoff said. “You have this false kind of protection that leads to not thinking before posting.”

“Even though it’s virtual, even though it’s mediated, even though it’s in some ways asynchronous, social media is like a public park,” Conley said. “What you say and do can be observed by anyone looking or passing by. And sometimes those observing could be future employers or people who have a vested interest in you.”

Though it’s a complicated concept, we have to teach kids to understand that they are constructing a version of themselves, an identity, online — Conley calls them “self-narratives”–that can’t be easily undone.

If in doubt, don’t send it out

It can be tempting to think of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat as outlets for our deepest emotions and dark secrets. But that’s really the opposite of where we should be sharing our private thoughts, because we can’t trust every human in the public park of the internet to understand and support us. “Some things are certainly best left untweeted or in draft,” Conley said.

“If you’re upset, don’t post. Put those feelings somewhere else,” said Heitner. “If you have something important and complicated to work out, say it to your friends. For example, Twitter shouldn’t be your dumping ground for every stupid thought you ever had about your (teaching assistant).”

McCammond expressed regret on her social media account two years ago — and a deeper sorrow last week — for anti-Asian comments she’d tweeted during college.

If McCammond had expressed thoughts to a friend with awareness (a key element), Heitner said, the friend could have called her on it, and she could have evolved — in private. “A friend could have said, ‘Don’t be racist because you don’t like your T.A.,’ and then pushed McCammond toward self-examination,” Heitner said. “But the tweet just hangs there in a forever moment.” What could have been a teachable moment became a permanent stain.

Be part of your child’s social media experience

Before social media, when kids had social interactions, often parents were around to call them on anti-social behavior and guide them to do the right thing. But especially during the pandemic, when millions of young children suddenly took up online learning, adults didn’t have the headspace or time to prepare or monitor them.

“Many children and adolescents are exploring and communicating with others online, oftentimes with people they do not know in real life,” Domoff said. “And this is occurring often without the supervision or guidance of their parents.”

We can check on what our kids are posting or texting, attending to social media as we do homework or friendships. But we can also ask them about their social media experiences, as we ask them how their days at school or playdates were.

“Tell me about your experiences online,” Domoff suggested parents say. “What happened when you were on social media? Did you see something funny? Did you see something that upset you? How did you respond when someone posted that on your wall or posted that on your page?”

We also need to support children who have been harmed by what misguided kids have posted. “Help them know what to do when they are experiencing hostility, aggression, racism or any other type of conflict online,” Domoff said. “Having parents navigate these challenging situations with them is critical.” That means that when media stories like McCammond’s come up, we can use them as segues to engage in discussions about online behavior.

The challenge, Heitner said, is, “How do we talk to kids about this in a realistic way without striking fear into their hearts? I don’t think we want to teach kids that people are lying in wait and out to get them.”

Teach them accountability

Making mistakes is part of being human, though the internet is not a forgiving place. What if you wrote something a decade ago that you now know is wrong?

“You take accountability for it. You say that was wrong. This is how it hurts other people. And you apologize for it,” Conley said.

But don’t wait years, or until you’ve got that big interview coming up, to acknowledge past wrongs. “The longer the wait to apologize, the more it looks like you’re doing it just to get a job,” Heitner said.

Owning mistakes, and making amends, is key. Show people how you’ve changed and evolved and the work you’ve done to move beyond those mistakes. “It may be possible to say, ‘I’ve come to understand the way these stereotypes are harmful, where I got these ideas from, and I’ve looked hard at my own biases and these are some actions I’ve taken,'” Heitner said.

“If you’re a parent and you see that your child posted something that was hurtful and harmful to others, come to an agreement with your child,” Domoff said. “‘OK, how are you going to fix this? Because what you said hurts people. So what can you do now? And how can we be proactive to ensure that it doesn’t happen again?’ You can’t go back in time, but you can do the do the work to show that that’s not who you are.”

Communicate with other parents

Parents also need to talk to one another about their children’s online interactions. Families have different rules about social media usage, not to mention values and ideologies, and all those things work together to make it difficult for parents to engage in discussions about how their kids are treating one another in cyberspace.

“If we were at a soccer game, in person, and you saw your daughter being ostracized or left out of the group, you would go over and talk to the parents,” Domoff said.

The same has to happen with online interactions: Pick up the phone and call a parent to talk about how your kids can treat each other better and resolve conflicts online. “It’s applying what we know works for children offline to the online environment,” Domoff said.

Model good behavior — online and off

These guidelines apply to adults, too. We all know that many adults post mean and hurtful content. “Adults haven’t figured out how to be better humans through these social platforms,” Conley pointed out. We, too, have to be careful not about our online footprint, but the work we’re doing to make a better world.

“Everybody should be working towards being anti-racist and working towards their own internal biases and addressing them,” Domoff said.

Teach kids to see other people’s mistakes in context — how old they were, how much power they had, how much they’ve changed. “We can still hold people accountable for their actions while extending some grace,” Conley said. “I know it sounds super cheesy and cliché, but we really do have to work on being better humans to each other. Being on social media and online platforms doesn’t change that.”

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