My first piece of advice is to focus on teaching your children how to be respectful when they communicate and engage with people, online but also in person. This means being aware of not just what you are saying but how you are saying it, and that how is immensely important in social media with its lack of emotional cues. Even a young child can start to learn that how they say things can impact who they are saying it to.
Additionally, being a respectful communicator also means being a good listener, which very much applies to social media. Being a good listener online means not assuming you know what a person means given what they have said, for the simple reason of those missing emotional cues. So children need to be taught to ask clarification questions if they are confused, and to let the person speaking know that their message has not been understood. Social media can allow for instant gratification but it can also mean instant problems if we start to assume we know what was meant by what was said.
On the matter of privacy, I think the key thing to remind children is that not everything has to be shared with the world. That we need to develop real friendships with real people that we know and that we know will support us and care about us. Social media can be a great way to meet friends and to keep in touch with friends we already have, and it can be a great way to share our happy times and sad moments, but to share such things only with our friends. The litmus test should be: if you are not willing to share it with your friend in person, then you should not be sharing it online.
And if you do share something in the heat of the moment, you need to be ready to deal with the consequences. It is far better to think about something to share, count to 10, and then decide whether or not it is worth sharing. How people think about you when they do not spend time with you in the physical world is determined by what you share online. So you need to be aware of what you share — what you say, what you do — online, just like you need to be aware of what you share in the physical world.
On the matter of bullying, the first big thing goes back to the advice for being respectful and minding what you share: what you say reflects who you are and determines what you are. Do not be one of the people to say mean things about another person online just because it makes you feel better about your self. No one’s pain is worth your fleeting satisfaction — and do not tell yourself that person is not being hurt.
Dealing with cyberbullying is really about empathy: would you want to be bullied this way? No, of course not, no one does. No one wants to feel that they are completely alone in the world, but bullying makes people feel that way, and especially cyberbullying when the bullying can be relentless and nonstop. So the simple thing is if you do not want to feel that way, then do not make others feel that way.
If your child should unfortunately be the victim of such bullying, report it to the school. Let the school know what is going on. Encourage your child to let you know what is happening so that you can let others know what is happening; unfortunately, so much of cyberbullying can happen without people being aware of the harassment outside of the harassed and the harassers. To truly end this, we need to be mindful of when it is happening and work as a community to stop it.
And above all us, remind your child that they are not the problem here; they have not done anything wrong to deserve this. More often that not, the bullies are just doing it to feel better about themselves; the harassers are the problem, not the harassed. Tell your child to ignore it, to not engage with the bullies, to not lash out in anger, to if anything respond with “I am sorry you think that way” and leave it at that. Defuse the bullies’ desire for power over the person they are harassing by not showing how it is affecting the harassed.
What was said about bullying is the same for any type of minor harassment, from trolling to negative comments. Respond with “I am sorry you think/feel that way” or just ask them non-loaded questions to try to understand why they are being so negative towards you.
This one is tricky, but it goes back to being a good listener, and it goes back to people seeking to share something right away (i.e. a negative comment) without taking that 10-second break to decide if it is something they really need to share. Many times negative comments are just knee jerk responses quickly tossed out in the heat of the moment, when a person is at an emotionally high peak. Given time and distance, such a comment could come to be regretted for the vitriol in it.
The key then is to not take them too seriously by defusing the situation. Don’t attack back, because the commenter will most likely just return with another attack in the heat of the moment, and a spiral of vitriol is formed. Defuse the situation by not engaging or by trying to understand why the person is so negative towards you.
On the matter of sexting, part of the issue comes back to the ideas of privacy and how much and what to share online. If you cannot absolutely trust that the person you are sending something to will not share it with the rest of the world, either right then or after some emotional moment, then you should not share it with that person, unless you are fine with dealing with the consequences. Emotions and passions can run high and can easily cloud rational decision-making, so that in the moment sexting sounds like a great idea. But there are too many ways for it to go wrong, to get out of control, and to mean you will be dealing with the consequences of very private information going very public.
Unless you are willing to face the consequences, then you should not do it. Unfortunately our society and culture still have many taboos in place regarding the human body and sexuality, so sharing that information can hurt you socially, economically, and so forth. Unless you are willing to share that image with every other person who knows you, then it is not worth the risk.
On the matter of addiction, there can be a problem with too much social media time, and not just because of the reasons mentioned above. First, too much screen time can mean that a child is not spending time with their thoughts, to ruminate and contemplate and imagine and dream and learn how to do all of these immensely important cognitive skills. When in the car or on the bus or on the train, a child does not need to always be looking at a screen. Make certain to give your child screen-less times and be firm about it: encourage the child to think and talk instead of just looking.
Second, especially for older children more engaged in social media, the need for constant connectivity can result in a fear of missing out: they may feel they need to always be on their social media accounts to see what their friends are doing and saying so that they are always in the conversation, because missing any part of the conversation could mean they are no longer a part of the community. This feeling of being left out is one of a child’s biggest fears; as a child develops a sense of self, it can only be done in relation to others, so not being around others can make the child feel anxious about who s/he is. There needs to be reassurance that it isn’t important to know every little detail, every little thing about the people around them. And that the people who are going to not like you because you missed out on something said are people who want your attention more than your friendship.
My main piece of advice is that the social media can be great at helping us connect to one another, but only if we remember that we are in control of how we use it, where and when we use it, and why we use it. If all we are doing is trying to get people’s attention–using the social media to stand up and wave our hands around and shout look at me–then we are not going to really connect to anyone. People do not want to always pay attention to you. Sometimes they want you to pay attention to them.
When we have this back and forth of paying attention, this reciprocity of listening, then we are truly connecting. Oversharing, sexting, having this fear of missing out, bullying, harassing — all of that is not about connecting but about attention-seeking. Be a good person online by trying truly to connect with others, and there should be no problems with your use of social media.