When Amy, mother of two teen boys and an 11-year-old girl, discovered that children in her daughter’s class were using the social photo-sharing app Instagram inappropriately, she responded by not just taking action for her own daughter, she got all the parents on board.
“The girls were using Instagram as bullying—taking pictures of gatherings that some girls weren’t invited to, and then sending or posting the pictures,” she says. “And the boys were using it to send and post inappropriate pictures.”
Amy sent an e-mail to all the sixth-grade parents describing what was happening, and the parents agreed the situation warranted putting an end to their children’s use of Instagram.
Amy’s story provides a microcosm of the dangers of social media for kids, as social, emotional, and sexual risks for children abound.
Get advice from experts—high school students.
Teens surveyed at a Catholic high school in suburban Wisconsin were quick to note the prevalence of online bullying and inappropriate pictures. Many of these teens, when asked to make a suggestion to parents of grade school children, proposed that parents not allow young teens to have a phone or use Facebook until their first year of high school. “Middle school kids can’t even keep themselves clean without reminders,” said one freshman boy. “How can they manage an iPhone?”
Students also said that once a child has a phone or a Facebook account, parents need to be actively involved in monitoring their children’s social media activity.
“I don’t think parents understand how many kids ‘friend’ other people when they don’t know them,” said one girl. “One rule parents should make is to only allow their kids to be friends with people that they actually know in real life.” This can be enforced by having the teen scroll down their list of friends and provide parents with a quick explanation of how they know each person. Facebook friends who are unknown in real life can be quickly unfriended as the parent watches.
The surveyed teens said that they believed parents knew about some of the dangers children and teens face online, but were unaware of the scope of the problem. “So many kids text in a way they wouldn’t speak face-to-face—with swearing and gossip,” said another girl, 15. “Parents should look at their kids’ texts.”
The teens were almost universal in their recommendation that parents should “friend” their children and monitor Facebook activity, and some said parents should have the teen’s log-in information so they could sign in to Facebook as their child and read more information.
Many kids said parents gave them credit for having more self-control than they actually did; these kids said their parents might not know it, but the phone and Facebook were preventing them from giving enough time to schoolwork and sleep. “Take the phone away at 10 p.m.,” said a girl who admitted to struggling with texting too much. “Get your son or daughter a plan that only allows a certain amount of texting.”
Danger of a false reality
Parents of older teens can also shine a light for parents of younger kids. These parents warn their younger counterparts that it’s easier to put limits on time spent texting or Facebooking ahead of time than it is to pull back once your child has gone too far.
And why are limits so important? Because both studies and firsthand experience of parents indicate that the more time children spend in a virtual world the unhappier they will become.
“One of the challenges of technology is that it creates a false reality,” says Trisha, high school teacher and parent of teens. “When teenagers are feeling lonely or excluded, they see postings of their peers going out and wonder why they weren’t included. It is very in your face. Other kids look happy—as if life is always great. But sometimes I know from their parents that they are going through a hard time.”
Teens busy with sports, theater, a part-time job, or volunteering have less time to go online; they are less at risk to be pulled into a virtual world if they are secure in their friendships and have a sense of belonging in the actual world.
Where does faith fit?
We go to church, and scripture tells of a world of scrolls and sandals. Jesus spoke with his voice to the multitudes—he did not tweet. So how can we tie today’s issues and concerns to our faith?
“What kids text and post online shows their values and morals,” says Jenna, who has not yet allowed her fifth-grade daughter to have a phone or use the Internet without a parent next to her. “Parents need to see texting and Facebook not just as technology but as a child’s expression of their morals.”
Parents of young teens can look for opportunities to discuss who their child is in the eyes of God—and the plans God has for that child. Children secure in the love they feel from their parents and who feel a sense of ownership of their faith and relationship with God are not as likely to be vulnerable to the temptations that technology presents. Children who feel broken and apart from their parents and God are more likely to look for validation online or through unhealthy texting.
Once the parent has determined the child is old enough to act responsibly with texting and Facebook, parents should continue to talk with children regularly about the connection between faith, morality, and what children say and do—both in “real life” and online or in texts.
By Annemarie Scobey, from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the Best in Class award in 2014 from the Associated Church Press, as well as a First Place General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association for the past four years running. Here’s a sample issue.
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