More than 90% of two-year-olds in the United States have an online presence. As it becomes more and more typical for parents to publish photos and information about their kids on social networks like Facebook and Instagram, conversations around the importance of privacy and “the perils of sharenting” are growing, too. And of course we’re concerned! We can’t open our phones without seeing an article about social media stranger danger or cyber-bullying.
Yet despite the fact that 72% of parents are concerned about maintaining their children’s privacy online, 55% of parents whose child has a social media account allowed this when the child was under the age of thirteen, according to the Family Online Safety Institute. As the founders of a social media agency, it’s likely not surprising that my husband Dave and I have allowed our kids to explore the digital world from a young age. Our thirteen-year-old is constantly using Snapchat. Our nine-year-old is obsessed with Music.ly. And while our two-year-old isn’t on social media just yet, he does watch Facebook videos of himself on loop.
The reality is that just like us, our kids are using technology to move forward. And that’s a good thing. The tricky part is figuring out how to allow our kids to try new things while also keeping them safe—and keeping ourselves from freaking out. I wish I could tell you that there’s a simple, magic answer to that challenge. But one-size-fits-all parenting just isn’t possible. I can, however, share with you the methodology that Dave and I use for parenting in a digital age. We like to use the mnemonic device “POEM” to help us remember the four elements we think are important: participation, open communication, education and monitoring. Let’s break that down:
Participation: Imagine that your twelve-year-old daughter comes to you and says, “I want to go to Brooklyn. I’m going to a place you’ve never been. And I’m going with a friend you’ve never met. Okay?” Um, not okay. This scenario is analogous to letting your kids use social networks that you haven’t used yourself. If you’re going to let your child onto Snapchat, you should understand how and why your child will use it. Now, I’m not telling you to take selfies of yourself vomiting rainbows all day, but you do need to see for yourself what it’s like so that you can increase your comfort level and arm yourself with knowledge. My pro tip: Create a “parent squad” to experiment with social media firsthand in a safe space.
Open Communication: Whatever the situation, the best way for parents to deal with issues is to create as much open communication with their children as possible. One way to establish a relationship based on open dialogue is to create a “family contract.” This is an agreement that clearly states the rules and consequences of social media use. (The Family Online Safety Institute provides great sample contracts to help you get started.) But with communication, it’s not just about the rules, it’s also about the feelings that social media brings up. When we were kids, for example, if we didn’t get invited to a birthday party, we weren’t reminded of that over and over again on Instagram or Snapchat. The openness of social media creates many more challenges for our children, which makes open communication all the more important.
Education: Like I said: You wouldn’t let your kids go to Brooklyn if you didn’t know the neighborhood. But what happens when the neighborhood changes week to week? Social media is a fast-moving industry in constant evolution. You have to continuously educate yourself to stay ahead. And the best way to do that is by jumping in and joining the networks your kids are using. There are also other resources I recommend: FOSI.org, CommonSenseMedia.org, DotComplicated.co, SafeSmartSocial.com and CarrieandDave.com.
Monitoring: Think back to when you were thirteen. Imagine if your parents knew about every conversation you had at the mall, on the phone or when you passed a note. That’s how it feels for kids today on social media. But here’s the thing: When you had all of those conversations as a kid, it wasn’t at scale, and it couldn’t cause the type of damage that Snapchat and other networks can cause today. There are various ways you can monitor your children’s online activity. At the Kerpen house, we do spot checks. At any point, without warning, I take the phone away and go through everything: I open every app, I look at every Snap, I read every text. And generally, everything I find is pretty harmless, but it gives me the peace of mind I need. Other ways you can monitor include: integrating your kid’s AppleID with your computer; using NetNanny, which acts as a mirroring system for desktop activity; using TeenSafe, which allows you to retrieve deleted texts; using My Mobile Watchdog, which mirrors the entire mobile experience; and using Mspy, which grants you access to your kid’s Snapchat account. Now, maybe you only use these tools when you need them, or maybe you take an always-on approach. When it comes to monitoring, you need to figure out what you’re okay with.
This is just one methodology for tackling the challenges of parenting in this digital age. But I hope I’ve given you some of the confidence and the resources to find what’s best for you and your family. Because the real answer to all of this is to do what makes you feel comfortable. That’s it.