How young is too young when it comes to using the web? It’s a debate I’ve had with my parents pretty much since I started seriously working in social media. The more I learn about current and future tech trends, the more I’m convinced that the best thing a parent, teacher, family friend or – in my case – big sister, can do to help keep a kid safe in social media is to let them learn how to use it.
Now, this doesn’t mean I want my 14 year old brother Tweeting every time he gets a crush on a girl at school, or my baby cousin sending Facebook updates about her fun weekend plans. But, I also think it’s extremely counterproductive and even harmful to keep a kid away from social media altogether, or ban them from using the same social networks their friends with more lenient parents are already addicted to. On the other hand, my mom and dad would like to keep my little brother locked as far away from Facebook as humanly possible – and understandably so, as they try to protect him from posting things that may seem cool at fourteen but won’t be so hot when he’s forty.
No matter how much they try to deny the kid access to the full spectrum of social networking sites, there’s no denying that he’s exposed to them every day anyway through his friends and (sorry Mom and Dad) his older siblings, who talk about them, post pictures on them, share with each other through them and make plans using them. Just because he’s not allowed to have an account, doesn’t mean he’s immune from being included in the social media mentions of others, or from the social pressure to engage in the online ecosystem. And, you can pretty much guarantee that he’s going to jump right into that ecosystem with full force the second the parental sanctions are lifted, particularly as social media becomes more and more ingrained in every aspect of our everyday lives — from finding a job to making plans with your friends.
We all had that friend in college who, having been sheltered their whole lives, went crazy the second their parents disappeared from their dorm rooms. And, because that friend had never learned how to healthily build up boundaries, tolerance and self control, that particular friend almost always took things too far. I worry that without parentally-sanctioned social networking time, kids like my brother will turn out the same way.
Which is why I think blanket banning of social media use isn’t the answer. I’m just as protective of my baby brother as my parents are — heck, sometimes even more so. And I don’t want him posting potentially dangerous or damning information on the web any more than they do. But, I think the best approach to teaching a kid how to navigate on the information superhighway is similar to the best approach to teaching them how to drive down the street.
Start with a learner’s permit — they can only take the social media out for a spin with you literally sitting behind them, guiding them about what’s appropriate and what isn’t. Teach them the rules of the road: the permanence of every post, the importance of keeping private information private, the consequences of putting up controversial content, etc. Teach them by literally doing it with them, just like you would show them how to parallel park or make a three point turn.
When they’ve reached the point where you think they’re ready to take the wheel without you, give them a driver’s test — a trial period where they can surf without you, but be subject to periodic checks of their content by mom and dad. By the time they’re ready to really take on the internet on their own, you can rest assured knowing they’ve gotten all the training they’ll need to be smart, savvy surfers. And, you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches, heartaches and forcibly deleted Facebook accounts along the way.