Last year, Nancy Smith attended a social media safety session at her son’s school that pushed her to decide to take a huge leap in her career. “I was angry when I left, because the guy running it was so far on the extreme of social media is not good and these are all the terrible things that can happen. Parents left in shock,” explains Smith, “Everything he said was true, but he left out the positives of social and was unrealistic about how parents should handle their kids using it.”
In response, Smith left her job in media relations to create a positive social media resource for parents. She launched a website, Social Citizens, and wrote the book, Social Citizens: A Positive Approach to Social Media and Parenting in a Digital World, to help parents navigate the sticky world of social media. We wanted to hear more about Smith’s work, and how she handles the online social life of her own 12 year old son, Evan.
What was it about that session you attended that made you angry?
The guy told them they were doing illegal activity by being on Instagram. Every kid in grade 6 is on Instagram, and he made parents feel terrible about it, saying “Do you realize what you’re doing is illegal? Read the terms and conditions.” He was correct, however it’s unrealistic. Rather than this fear-based approach, and assuming the worst — that if your kid is on Snapchat or Instagram that their sexting each other — I teach parents this is an important way for kids to connect and communicate.
Are there positives to our kids being on social media?
It has numerous benefits, including that most important social aspect, friendship. And navigating relationships and how to nurture them. These skills are ones our own parents had to navigate when we were kids using the phone. It’s just a new twist on parenting.
I think a lot of us are really freaked out by the fact our kids have these accounts, and aren’t really sure how to handle it.
As parents we have to be involved, and that is really what I try to get across. Don’t bury your head in the sand, don’t tell them they can’t do it. If you’re going to allow them to have Instagram, and you’re going to allow them to have Snapchat, make it a positive thing between the two of you. If you don’t know how to use it, learn from them. I ask Evan all the time, “Hey, there’s this new feature on Instagram, how do I use it?” Or “How do I get to this?”, and then he’ll show me. I’m humbled by how quickly they learn. It can actually be a fun, positive experience for learning and building relationships when you do this with your kids.
Are some platforms worse than others?
Well, one I think is just starting to explode in Canada now, called Sarahah, and a lot of people are very concerned about it. You ask questions and people are allowed to post anonymous replies. Interestingly enough, last night I was looking at Instagram stories, and my son had one. I look and he’s like ‘“Hey, here’s my username for Sarahah. Hit me up.” We’ve always had a rule if you start a new account we have to talk about it first. So I called him out on it and he’s like “Sorry mom, I’m not gonna use it.” I’ve actually never really had that from him before. And I’m like, “Hell no. One of the ground rules is we have to talk about things.” I feel the safest apps are the ones that you can control who’s connecting to your kid. So we have a rule that you’ve got to know the person in order for them to follow you, or for them to be able to connect with you.
Also, parents need to be aware that many kids have more than one Instagram account and it will be another account they use for messaging. A lot of parents are like, “No, Instagram’s fine.” Then I say, “‘Oh, see how there’s that drop down arrow there? She’s got a couple of accounts. Let’s look here.” And that’s where they’re messaging and posting. But I think the key thing is that parents just don’t know and they’ll assume that their kid doesn’t have these accounts. I see girls my son’s age on Snapchat doing stories at 11:30 at night. My biggest concern is then, “Where are these parents, do they know their daughter’s on there?”
I think a lot of us find it hard to stay on top of new social platforms and features.
I think you just have to because this is not a one time conversation. It’s a frequent check-in. We need to help our kids be more critical about these platforms too, and question what they are doing and why they want to connect with people.
What consequences do you dish out when your kids messes up with all this?
I’m pretty tough. I’ll definitely take the phone away. But, I try not to say what they did was wrong, it’s what they exposed themselves to that could be. It is kind of that stranger danger conversation, letting your kids know there are bad people online and we need to protect them from exposing themselves to those people.
I show my son stories from the news. There’s a recent example in Calgary of a junior high band teacher that was caught with child pornography and is accused of luring some students through social media. And so we talk about it. Number one, why would you be friends with your band teacher through social media, like does that make sense? “No mom, that doesn’t make sense.” And number two, do you understand what these words mean? Lured online? Let’s talk about what that looks like. What people ask you to do. And now that he’s almost 13 it’s age appropriate for me to have that open conversation. At 11, not so much.
So we should use mistakes as teaching opportunities?
Yes. I say I’m going to be more clear on how I’m going to allow you to use it, and allow is a very important word because that shows involvement. I will be by your side. I will be here for you. If we shut it down and tell kids no, you’re forbidden, they’ll find underground ways to do things. The trick is that you are involved.
What rules do you have around your son’s phone?
The phone belongs to me. Therefore I’m allowed to look at the phone whenever I want. Random phone checks are a fact of life, and he willingly does it. We talk about respectful usage, whether that be respecting the school rules about phones, or respecting your time with others by not using your phone when spending time with friends or family. It was amazing to me to see other people — other adult family members — on their phones at Christmas dinner, and I’d look at Evan and say keep your phone over there, we don’t need it right now.
There are a lot of studies about kids spending too much time online, but one positive study, that I reference it in my book, talks about the peak time being four hours of usage. So, I set a timer for four hours over the course of a day, he has a little time after school time to veg out, watch YouTube, play video games. Then there’s homework. Typically because he’s an active kid he’s off to do some sport. Then he’s allowed to unwind again but an hour before he heads to bed, it’s device off.
We always finish these interviews by asking what moms you look up to?
My mom, for sure. She’ll probably hate me saying this — she’s 81 years old and she is so current, and plugged into the news and what’s happening in the world. She’s on social media. She uses it to connect to people around the world that she cares about, or she’s met in her travels. When my dad died 15 years ago she really took that mentality of, “I’m going to rewrite my book and start a new chapter.” She learned how to speak Spanish, and went to live in Mexico for the winters. She took adversity and tried her best to make a new way of it. And she’s always taught me that life may not go like you planned, but you’re gonna have to figure it out and make the best of it.
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