We live in a culture virtually enveloped by digital media, 24/7. For adults and children alike, social media has become central to our very identities — both in how we interact with our close friends and family, and in the many ways we present ourselves to, and engage with, our broader worlds. As I prepare to speak on February 5th in New York City at The Meeting House’s symposium, “Just a Click Away!: How Social Media Influences our Children’s Social Development,” I have been acutely aware of my own behavior as someone for whom social media has become essential to both my professional and personal lives.
Just this morning, I was in a 5 a.m. taxi headed to the airport, and realized how cold and rude my behavior may have seemed to my cab driver, who kept talking to me as my eyes stayed glued to my phone checking early morning emails and posts. He was right there in the front seat, and I’m not proud to say that I was too wrapped up in a different conversation to respond gracefully. I think most of us have some version of that kind of digital distraction that doesn’t reflect who we truly aspire to be.
When it comes to our kids, the worries are multiplied. Just the other night, I heard a story from my friend of three boys who were seniors at a local school. They were expelled from school over an unfortunate sexting incident, the latest case of a growing national phenomenon. We are concerned, rightly, about our children’s privacy, online bullying and about a digital trail of youthful indiscretion that can follow our children in ways they may not consider — concerns we never had to worry about when we were their age. It is overwhelming to us all as our policies and educational systems struggle to keep up with the speed of our ever-changing digital world.
The good news? We can find some encouragement and comfort by going back to the pre-digital basics and keeping it simple with common sense from the heart. Because almost everything we need to know about helping our kids navigate and use social media productively and happily we all learned ourselves in kindergarten. Here’s what I mean about some old-fashioned rules we can apply to the new digital road:
1. Walk Before You Run: Go slow when introducing social media to your children. Just as you carefully selected your child’s first library of books, take the time to put together a resource list of tools and sites that are an appropriate fit for them developmentally.
2. Listen First, Talk Next: We can use social media to learn about and listen to dialogues our children are having. This is the most important lesson of the#IWillListen campaign. Having a trusting, open relationship with our children is a key element in building a foundation for navigating through these tricky issues. As parents we have to be present to hear what our children are expressing about their lives, online and off.
3. Play Nice in the Sandbox: It seems like such a simple idea, to play nice with others. But too often we know social media is associated with meanness. It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s possible to have social media with soul — using this remarkable digital technology to make meaningful connections, recognize and champion others, acknowledge the feelings we and others may have and draw families and friends closer together even when we are geographically distant. Social media can do that, but only when we act with integrity and presence.
4. Look Both Ways Before Crossing (and hold my hand!): Each time your child enters into a new social media platform, it’s critical to take the time to make sure you and they understand the dynamics and implications. So, just like crossing the street for the first time, parents need to stay close.
5. Take a Nap, and Get Your Rest!: Sometimes we need to take a break from it all. When we disconnect our connections are so much more meaningful. We adults have learned later in life that there’s too much of a good thing when it comes to social media. Taking time to unplug is essential.
6. Color Outside the Lines: As in other areas of life and learning we want to teach our children not to be afraid to be their own person, online and off. Just because their friends are on social media, it doesn’t mean they have to be. Kids need our support in whatever choices are authentic and comfortable for them. I am probably the only mother on the planet who wishes that her adolescent son would get a cell phone and use a little bit of social media.
7. Tell the Truth!: Being aware and honest about your own use of, and feelings about, social media is key to having meaningful conversations and connections with your children. Opening up authentically about your own questions and concerns can lead to productive dialogues with kids of any age. Honesty is the first step towards awareness and awareness can lead to healthy choices and change.
8. Perhaps Most Importantly, Practice What You Preach!: Long before kids have spoken their first words, they are watching and observing us. That’s why it’s critical for parents to model healthy social media use, for both work and personal communications. If you are feeling, or are observing, smartphone and social media addictions in your self or your children, put yourselves on a social media diet and say no. This is one frontier where kids and parents are truly exploring together how to find the right balance. A few unplugged hours outside together as a family can work wonders in many ways!
In the end, social media is an extension of what we already know, say and feel about ourselves. And the basic rules of good behavior still apply. The immediacy, pace, and multiplier effect is new, and that can be both scary and empowering for us all. It’s up to us to decide if we can infuse these tools with the values that make us truly human — at every stage of our lives.
ABOUT JANINE FRANCOLINI:
Janine Francolini is the Founder of the Flawless Foundation and serves on the board of the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics at the USC Gould School of Law and is a member of the Dorothea Dix Think Tank, advancing their mission to decriminalize mental illness. She serves on many advisory boards in both the non-profit and corporate sector. Janine earned a Masters’ degree from Columbia University and had a 15-year career in education.