Unchecked, social media can expose kids to some gnarly issues: cyberbullying, sexting, threats to privacy, fear of missing out — the list goes on.
Many parents are adept at explaining the basics such as “no screen time after bedtime,” or “don’t connect with strangers online.” But they often fall short at understanding the intricacies of their child’s involvement on social media sites like Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram, according to education writer Linda Stade.
To assist them, the former teacher has created a social media contract using teens’ input. It gives parents the icebreakers to cover key issues that arise from social media participation, while offering children a unique perspective on their own responsibility as participants.
We recently interviewed Stade via Skype from her home in Perth, Australia.
Laurel Gregory: Start by telling me why you wanted to create a social media contract in the first place?
Linda Stade: I had a lot of mail from my readers who are feeling really overwhelmed by social media. They want to do the right things and they want to keep their kids safe and have all the right conversations, but they’re not really sure what those conversations are.
I thought a social media contract was a really good way of guiding them through that process and giving them an idea of what to talk about. It also sets the purpose of reminding kids that being on social media comes with responsibilities.
LG: I noticed one of the first points in the contract was to list the things that are important in your life, things that are more important than social media. Why did you want to emphasize that point right off the top?
LS: It is the first point because I think it’s really important that social media is put in its place.
It’s a fun thing and kids love it and I don’t want to demonize it. But it has its place and it comes way behind family and spending one-on-one time with your friends in real time, and exercising and doing activities and school and all sorts of other things that are far more important.
I wanted to make sure that kids recognize that as well because I think in some cases, with kids, it does start to take over and shape the way they are living their lives. They tend to do things like go to the beach and it’s more about getting the photos for Instagram or Snapchat than it is about being at the beach.
LG: Is there a particular age parents should be going over this contract with their kids or is it more about when they are accessing social media?
LS: I think it’s something you need to talk to kids about before they go on social media. But then it needs to be reinforced over and over and over again. Like anything with teenagers, it’s all about communication and reinforcing what’s important to keep a child safe, but also what’s important in your values in your family. I think there is no specific announced time when to drag out the social media contract. It’s an ongoing process.
LG: What are some other points in the contract that parents should discuss and for the child to go over prior to signing on?
LS: I think the idea of being kind and respectful. Kids can be quite impulsive. They are working from their amygdala, which is the impulsive, emotional part of their brain. Until their brain comes into a more adult state, they often think second, act first. So, I think it’s important that we really emphasize with kids that you need to be kind, you need to think about why you’re posting things. Is it going to present you in the way you wanted to be presented or are you just trying to fit in and go along?
I’m really invested in kids being authentic. Very often, they present a persona online that is quite different to who they are in real life because they think that persona is much more likeable than they are. And that’s obviously not true and it’s no way to form a connection with other people. We need to be authentic to form connections. That to me is really important.
In talking to teenagers, they tell me that, ‘If I post a photo of myself and it doesn’t get 100 likes, I’ll take it down because it’s embarrassing.’ Getting your self-worth from social media is a problem to me. There’s a number of issues in there. Things like, where is the time coming from that you’re devoting to social media? Because something has to go. Is that family time? Is it sleep time? Is it something that is far more important than social media? I think also the idea of kids bullying online is a big problem here and I’m sure it is in Canada as well. It’s that whole idea of wanting to fit in and not really taking responsibility for the person you are online. Lots of kids who bully online would never do that in real life, so it’s about that authenticity for me.
WATCH MORE: Teens and social media
LG: Kids are so fixated and surrounded and really consumed by their online life. Do you think the pendulum will swing back where we’ll see kids valuing the other parts of their lives more?
LS: I tend to think of the internet generally as a bit of a wild west at the moment. It’s so new that we haven’t really created societal norms around it. In terms of laws, it’s fairly unregulated. So, I think that there will be a swing back and I think we’ll also get better. Schools and parents working together to make sure that we are emphasizing the social elements of the net, and particularly social media. That will force us to have better conversations. The safety conversations are really important but I think these other conversations about self-worth, authenticity and our priorities are equally as important.
Click here to see Linda Stade’s downloadable social media contract