This week news broke detailing the death of an Australian Teenager “Dolly” creating headlines around the country. At just 14 years old the news that she had took her own life after torment from online bullies was devastating.
Following her story there has been an outpouring of grief as the hashtag #speakevenifyourvoiceshakes has taken off, urging young people to speak up about their online bullying experiences.
Today there are renewed calls for parents to evaluate when and how they are allowing their children to access social media.
When is too young and what should they be accessing?
Dr Michael Car-Gregg says 60 – 70 percent of primary school students are accessing social media and they simply do not have the emotional maturity to be doing so.
So as a parent, what can you do and how should you manage your children’s access to technology and social media?
At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, I am the parent of a 16 year old child who up until 3 weeks ago had not even owned a mobile phone and still remains free from any social media platforms. Yes, a living breathing teenager without a phone, facebook or instagram, such a thing exists and it was blissful for many years.
Now after much deliberation and lamenting he has been granted a phone and the ever painful journey ahead continues. But it was not without a significant amount of foresight and strategies in place that helped to manage this new transition, strategies that have been effective and by sharing may help you better manage your teenager and technology.
Your child is not entitled to their device
This was the first crucial piece of information placed into our sons head. You are being granted the rights to this device, but you are not entitled to it. It must continue to be earned, it has been given and it can be taken away. It’s an important reminder that has also, so far, helped keep behaviour and attitude in line. With the threat of taking away his beloved device he’s become somewhat more compliant making for a more pleasant teenager.
They do not own their device
In the same thread as entitlement comes ownership.
“I am purchasing you this device, you do not own it and you do not have the rights to do with it as you wish.” By laying out the ground rules of appropriate use and boundaries it’s been made pretty clear that misuse means no more phone, a threat that has again proven successful, so far. This also includes parental access at any time, no changing of the password and the knowledge that as the parent I can ask to see and will go through the phone to check text messages, photos and other details as I see fit.
They do not need 24/7 access to it.
It’s easy to be guilted into feeling like you’re depriving them of something if you remove access from them, but time away from the device is vital and sitting up on his phone all night is never going to be a good idea. That being said, the phone is returned to it’s charging station in my room each night and released back to the teenager at my discretion the following morning, pending completion of chores and generally being a nice person. He doesn’t need it as an alarm clock, they’re $10 at K-mart and he most certainly doesn’t need it to listen to music to fall asleep, as he’s already tried to claim.
Set up family sharing
This is the most crucial tool that I encourage any parent to use.
Unfortunately it does involve both the parent and child having an iphone. If you have a young child, particularly under 12, there’s an understandable argument against purchasing an iphone, however it most definitely has it’s advantages and using family sharing will assist you greatly.
You can purchase a pretty cheap Iphone 5C either brand new or rebuilt, we picked up a rebuilt one online for $120 and you wouldn’t know the difference. These are great sturdy little phones and being iphones give you both the ability to use it as a tracking device for your child and also to monitor what they access.
Home Sharing is a fantastic tool setup on the apple system that allows you to connect your child’s account with your own and allows you to monitor the content that goes on their phone.
First things first, set your child up with a new iTunes account ensuring you use their real age or set it at the minimum age allowed. You will then be guided to connect this account to your own and set up purchase authorities from your account, follow the steps on apples home sharing and ensure their account is linked to yours.
What does this do exactly? Home sharing makes you the authoritarian on all apps, downloads and purchases on your child’s device. This includes free apps, paid apps AND in game purchases, it eliminates ANY risk of your child purchasing anything and running up a bill without your authority and allows you complete control over what apps they access without you having to see their phone. Even if they have their own credit (You can purchase an itunes gift card to give them their own credit to spend) you still must authorize their purchases.
How does it work? It’s simple, when your child wants to download an app to their phone or make a purchase they click the “Get” button and a request automatically appears on their phone “Little Johnny would like download Clash of Clans” you are given a summary of the app, it’s price and then the option to approve or decline their request.
This means there is ZERO chance of any unwanted apps appearing on their phone, if you haven’t authorised Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat, then they can’t have them on there and there’s no way around it, you have complete control over what goes onto their device.
Tracking your child’s device
This is arguably the most useful reason for giving any child an iPhone, the ability to track and monitor where they are. If you have a child that is catching public transport or walking home it’s comforting to know where they are at all times.
There are two ways to do this.
Download and install the app “Find my friends” on both your phones and connect your child’s account, from here at any point you can open the app and it will give you a live location of their device. This is also great if they have it lost or it has been stolen.
As a back up to this, if they are smart enough to turn it off in order to get up to something, there is “Find my Iphone” already installed on your phone. As you are already connected through family sharing their phone will automatically show up in your family group on your phone, allowing you again to track just where they are exactly, enabling you to know they got home safe, arrived at school or their friends house without stress and worry.
But what about Social Media?
Here’s a few things to bear in mind.
Social Media is toxic.
Even at the best of times for adults social media eats into every part of our world, we’re lucky as adults that (sometimes) we have the maturity to deal with the information that’s presented to us, but our young people, especially children in primary school are in no way prepared for this.
Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Tumblr, What’s App and Instagram automatically give your child a window to the outside world, but conversely it means the outside world can see in too, once they have these accounts they immediately become contactable to anyone. The digital world is full of unsavoury people, if you are going to allow them to access these apps, be prepared for what they bring and be prepared to monitor the content because people will try to contact them and you need to be know who is contacting them and most importantly, what they are saying.
Facebook: A breeding ground of self validation and low self esteem. Whilst most young people are slowly steering away from this platform it is easy for subversive and negative behaviour patterns to emerge for those that do use it. The pervasive habits of counting likes and “rating” peers and commenting becomes a breeding ground for bullying. They set up private groups, “Screen shot” conversations and send them between each other, it is very much a digital school yard. In terms of accountability however it is much easier, everything is there to be seen. If your children are communicating with people who they know to be real, if you are monitoring their content and their conversations and have access to their passwords it’s easier to stay on top of this platform.
Snapchat: This is most common amongst young people and will grant you the least control. Videos and conversations are gone either instantly or after 24 hours, it doesn’t leave a paper trail for you to follow and is a breeding ground for nudity, nastiness and bullying. If they are on this app they are either sending nudes or being asked to send nudes, no if’s buts or maybes. There is no recourse for this behaviour and it makes it harder to track and monitor. This is the last app you should be considering for your child and is definitely on the “NO” list until they are ready and have a strong understanding of nudity, consent and bullying.
Tumblr: This one serves two purposes, it’s either going to be a haven for your geeky child where they can find great content for their niche likes and interests. Alternatively it’s a haven for underground porn. If you have a teenage boy and he has Tumblr, this is his window to porn. This can be accessed on a standard computer without an app on your phone, but is definitely one that requires a discussion with your child first.
Twitter: Again Twitter is less appealing to the younger audience, it’s generally used for fangirling at celebrities, screaming nothings into a vast echo chamber of nonsense and following hastags if they feel left out. Chances are any child under 16 would try this and grow bored really quickly. It’s easy enough to monitor what people are saying to them and anything they are saying, even externally through your own account, however Twitter has extreme anonymity. It’s an easy place for bullying, nasty and sinister behaviour to occur, look no further than Charlotte Dawson who took her own life after the abuse she faced on Twitter. Approach with caution.
What’s App: This and other chat based apps were originally designed to avoid having to pay to SMS or call anyone and operates as a data communication device, rather than using your phone credit. But with the evolution of phone plans and imessage it’s necessity has ceased and is instead used more as a place for private discussions away from social media platforms, it’s an easy one kids use as they think you less likely to know it or understand it, but it’s where a lot of private conversations that probably shouldn’t be taking place are happening.
Instagram: Due it’s simplicity it’s very popular with younger kids. “Insta” is their instant source of validation with a simple formula: post photos, get followers, get likes. It has a great no nudity policy, but that doesn’t stop young girls posting photos that are far from appropriate for their age group in their quest for attention. One of the most alarming games I read about recently was the “Voting game” where girls pick 6 – 9 photos of their peers and encourage their followers to “vote” for the most attractive and least attractive girl as they slowly eliminate them. There is also the internal messaging system that does allow them to be contacted by the outside world or send messages amongst their peers. Accounts can be and are best set to private, people must request and be approved to see images and follow. Used in moderation, with parental supervision over the content posted it can be a steady starting platform to introduce your teen to social mean. But also keep in mind it has been rated as one of the worst apps for young people’s mental health.
Don’t be afraid to say no, or yes.
At the end of the day, be informed and be prepared to discuss these things with your children and tackle the tough decisions. But above all don’t be afraid to say no to their requests for any apps or access to any social media. It’s your child and your decision, so whether you allow them to access at 12 or 17 the choice is yours, make your decision and stick to your guns. Be vigilant about it and talk to them about your reasons.
They aren’t missing out.
This is the single most common reason I’ve heard parents detail for allowing their children access to apps and devices is a fear that their children will miss out or be left behind.
The simple fact of the matter is this isn’t true they are not missing out on anything.
What has been most fascinating as our son has continued year after year without a phone or social media has been how much he hasn’t missed out on and how much other children are actually in the same boat. Of his three closest friends, only one has any form of social media and only 2 have phones. Even when he left his holiday camp recently, a technology camp of all places (his phone stayed home), I was greeted by a handful of kids he went to exchange numbers with who didn’t have mobile phones and didn’t even mention social media.
By choosing when you allow them to access these things you aren’t restricting them from anything, you are simply allowing them to experience the same social dynamics they always had without processing it through an app. You’re limiting their exposure to nastiness, negativity, nudity, predators and other things or people they simply don’t need in their lives as they grow into maturity.
Aren’t I invading their privacy?
Probably the greatest lie we tell ourselves as parents when trying to justify technological freedom to our children is that they should be “trusted” and “allowed” privacy on their devices as though this is something they are entitled to. But you have to rewire your thinking, they aren’t entitled to privacy on a device, we are talking about their mental and emotional well being and safety, which is paramount. If you’re using the invasion of their privacy to justify unfettered access to Snapchat or Instagram for a ten year old you need to think about what they are potentially being exposed to.
Above all, educate them
Most importantly, irrespective of your decisions ensure you educate your child about what they see online and what they see and hear when communicating on social media. If they have social media apps sit and go through them with them and teach them to think critically about what they are seeing and how they are interacting. Have discussions about how they view themselves and other people online and impart the impact that their words may have on those who see them. Teach them to love, respect and value themselves and their bodies.
If we simply release them blindly into the minefield of social media and technology we will be doing more harm than good, we won’t be invading their privacy or inhibiting their freedom, we may be exposing them to far more harm than we intend.