In all honesty, our children probably aren’t that keen on Facebook and Instagram when it comes to getting their social media fix these days. In some tween or teen circles, it’s just not “cool” anymore – but a lot depends on the company your child keeps. Today’s kids and teens are growing up in an era of Snapchat and Twitter, amongst other apps, and the cyber-landscape just keeps on changing.
As a parent, it is definitely worrying to wonder if your child is mature enough to navigate the choppy waters of social media with wisdom, grace and discipline. Especially when you look around you and realise that more children are getting their smartphone or laptops at younger and younger ages. At the same time, newspaper reports deliver story after story of the vices and dangers of revealing too much information online, and it’s no wonder most of us get cold feet just thinking about giving our kids their first phone.
Most of us got our first pager when we were in our late teens or college, but our children will probably own their first phone and computer by the time they take their PSLE – or even before that. According to Dr Lim Sun Sun, an associate professor in the Department of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore, a ‘cot bumper approach’ to raising kids won’t work.
“You hold the key to building your child’s defences against perspectives that contradict the beliefs that you subscribe to, and that you want your children to subscribe to. You can interpret, moderate and mediate for your child the media content that he is confronted with… It is an ongoing journey of trust, sharing, discussion, and debate. Rather than obliterate all opinions that you consider deleterious, embrace each alternative view as an opportunity to rationalise to your child why you disagree with it. Foster a relationship of mutual respect and understanding where your child knows that she can turn to you when she encounters messages that are confusing or upsetting.”
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In wrestling with the questions of “When?”, “What?” and “How much?”, here are five key factors to help you and your spouse work out the principles that your family will live by when it comes to the realm of social media.
Of course your child thinks a phone or Facebook account is necessary. They may tell you that they need to be readily contactable by their project mates or even by teachers, and that having a phone, email or Facebook account is therefore of paramount importance. You may be worried that short-changing them will cause them to be left behind or left out of important discussions, and so you scramble to get them connected.
Before you run out to buy the nearest phone or laptop on the block, take time to find out the facts. Talk to other parents of children that are of the same school-going age. Find out from the school what is expected. It could very well be that they are going to do more group projects in school this year, and need to have a means to communicate with their friends after school hours. Would using the home line be sufficient for their needs?
Even the most obedient children not impervious to the temptations of social media addiction and other dangers online, so you don’t want to set them up for failure in this regard. Will they be able to recognize and stick to the agreed-upon usage of social media, i.e. within the limits set by you? Will they be able to discern which websites are appropriate, and who to “friend” on Facebook? Do they understand the importance or privacy and social protocols?
Don’t underestimate the dangers of the internet. There are millions of bytes of uncensored information out there on the world wide web, and much of these can quietly creep into our children’s minds if we do not safeguard them against it. Then there are all the stories of child predators who have lured and groomed their victims online, and whilst you shouldn’t live in fear of them, you should definitely be prepared to guide your children in choosing their online friends wisely.
If you sense that your children may not be able to discern some of these issues well enough yet, you can either delay the introduction of social media, or use apps like TimeAway, which allows parents to monitor and control device usage and app downloads. With TimeAway, you can pause their device, set time limits, and even block apps that cause you concern, whenever needed.
Naturally, every child wants the latest smart phone on the market, which is probably also the most expensive one! Dear parents, don’t burn a hole in your pocket prematurely. We all know that children are very good at misplacing items, forgetting things, losing their bags, wallets, water bottles, phones etc.
Many of the parents we know have not started out their tweens on smart phones right away, but began by giving their child a basic mobile phone with no data plan. After all, at the primary school level, the only reason children would need a phone is for group project communication. Any online research can be done in the comfort of home, on the family computer. As their children grew older and more responsible, they were then promoted to smart phones.
Before you allow your children to have their first phone or social media account, be sure to set ground rules in place. Once the ball has started rolling, it’s doubly hard to stop.
What kind of rules? Consider limiting the amount of time spent on the phone or computer, the kinds of websites that are allowed, and the types of apps downloaded. Specify also times when they need to be offline and present, e.g at the dinner table, or when the phone needs to be put away for the night, to avoid late night pillow talk under the blanket.
Your children’s passwords should not be a secret from you. While some may find this point debatable, we recommend that you be in the know of their passwords to social media accounts – not that you will be signing in on their behalf, but as a safety net if one day you should urgently need to intervene. Alternatively you may also want to open your own account on the same media platform, so that you can be in the know of what they are doing and posting online.
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Last but not least, with the setting of limits come consequences for breaking those limits. To be fair, spell out these consequences right from the beginning. For example, overuse of the phone may result in the phone being confiscated for a day, or using the phone during class time may mean one week of no phone. Remember that your duty as a parent is not to help your children be hailed as the coolest kids in class, but to instill much needed values of integrity, responsibility, wisdom and discipline.
By Dorothea Chow
Would you set a social media account for your child? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!