Thursday 16 April 2015

Social media for kids

I'm often asked my views as both a parent and "net geek", on appropriate social media for kids. My approach is fairly simple. As a parent I have 2 choices - try to ban/scare them from ever trying any of it, or try to educate them and encourage digital literacy.

Digital literacy is my "thing". I don't know what you were like as a kid, but if my parents told me I couldn't do something then I wanted to do it - which usually meant doing it in secret at a friend's house so they wouldn't find out! My kids are a LOT like me... :-/

It's a fact that there are bad people out there who do bad things, and your kids absolutely need to be educated about this (just like real life). But there's no need to scare the pants off them by telling lies and humiliating them in front of their peers, as a so-called cybersafety "expert" did at my kid's school last year. The analogy I often use is that it's like teaching kids to cross the road. You don't throw them out there completely uneducated and unsupervised - it's a process of learning.

My oldest is now a tween in Grade 6, and Instagram is the Current. Big. Thing. When I'm asked my opinion on Instagram by other parents, I suggest:
  1. Ensure your child has a Private account. This means they must allow friends to connect before being able to see their photos.
  2. Know their passwords, and ensure they understand that you can check their account at any time.
  3. Explain the only offline friends should be online friends theory.
  4. Encourage them not to use their full name on the account, or to use any other personally identifying information, especially their school or home or anywhere they regularly go where they could be tracked down.
  5. Explain the "no private parts" theory of photography. Throw in the "would you be happy for Grandma to see this photo?" theory for good measure.
  6. Encourage them to ask ask ask, if they're unsure about anything at all.
  7. Discourage selfies.
(Most of this is applicable to any social media account, not just Instagram.)

The selfies item often raises questions - "why bother if they have a private account?" This is mostly about what happens when they eventually de-private the account. Once that happens, the account can be indexed on search engines, and becomes a part of their enduring web presence. Once it's online, it's there for good.

The Internet has resulted in many changes to our culture, and we are the first generation of parents that need to consider these things. The permanency of the online record is something we've never had to think about before.

Leaving aside the pervert factor for a moment - here is just one example. Imagine a potential employer Googling your kid's name in a few years time, and finding pages of silly pre-teen and teen images with duck faces and pouty lips and questionable amounts of clothing (or worse). And then Googling another kid's name and finding a few sensible looking shots of a kid wearing a school uniform and accepting an award, or playing an instrument, or excelling at sport. And then Googling another kid who has never used the Internet, and finding nothing at all. Who would YOU employ?

Click here to read the story of the Star Wars Kid, one of the first examples of a web presence gone wrong. Keep in mind this happened 2 years BEFORE YouTube and well before Facebook, Twitter, etc. so it's important to take that into account today. Try Googling the kid's real name and see how many pages into Google you get before you can find a link without the words "Star Wars" linked to his name.

For further reading on this topic, I recommend It's Complicated the social lives of networked teens by danah boyd, which is available free (legally) on her website. I also have some Getting Started tips for parents here that I wrote a few years ago.


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