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Introducing social media to children during the COVID-19 crisis

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WATCH ABOVE: Children are yearning to connect with their friends and that's prompted some parents to sign their kids up for social media far earlier than they planned. Laurel Gregory has more on what to consider before giving the green light – Apr 14, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has prompted many parents to rewrite the family rule book around social media.

Parents who vowed their children wouldn’t set a digital foot into the world of social media prior to junior high are allowing their children to dabble in virtual communication in an effort to keep them connected with their friends.

We reached out to Dr. Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, for a crash course in what parents should consider when they sign up their child for a social media account.

Laurel Gregory: We’ve heard from a lot of parents who are giving their children the green light to use social media at a much younger age than they planned. What advice would you give them?

Dr. Michael Rich: As you know, we don’t specifically endorse any product, but Facebook actually convened a group of child developmental experts, including me and one of my staffers, to help develop Messenger Kids — not Facebook messenger but Facebook Messenger Kids. While it is not perfect… one of the good things about it is it’s completely monitored by parents. The parents are able to not only observe all of the traffic that the kid is involved with, but needs to curate and actively choose their contacts. The idea behind this, from those of us who were consulting, is that the kids are jumping into social media anyway whether or not they are supposed to, and this is a way for the parent to help guide and mentor the child on using social media and messaging apps in responsible, safe and kind ways. It allows them to basically train them. So in a sense, it’s like sitting in the front seat of the car when your child learns how to drive.

It’s scary, you’re a little white-knuckled and worried about it, but you are essentially helping them apprentice in this new skill — at your side.

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I think that the real issue is: will parents put in the time to be with their child as they introduce this new technology to them — this new way of connecting with friends, which also includes helping them know when to use it and when to turn it off?

READ MORE: Facebook rolls out Messenger app for kids in Canada — despite calls to shut it down

LG: So it’s about staying engaged as a parent and also using social media as a tool. It’s fine for my five-year-old son to be chatting with friends on Facetime?

Dr. R: Yeah, absolutely. I think that we’re at a stage in our social evolution, if you will, even before lockdown for COVID-19, where we have to acknowledge that kids are moving seamlessly between physical space and digital space. And in acknowledging that, we have to understand that just like we increase their freedom if they take responsibility in real life — like what parties they go to, who’s houses they go to, what they do — we should do exactly the same in the digital space.

I think that with very young children, it’s really important to observe them, both in terms of what they are doing and sort of how they are responding.

Particularly when going to much more open spaces like Instagram and TikTok, kind of reserving the right to say, ‘You know, I don’t think this is the right space for you.’ TikTok can go to some very dark and scary places, and for that matter so can Instagram, and I’m not talking about real badness. I’m also talking about the way image-based social media kind of encourages narcissism, the selfie and the objectification of one’s self. Be aware that that may be going on for your child and be watchful for it and mindful of it. Discuss it with them and ask if they really want to go there.

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READ MORE: TikTok joins forces with WHO to promote coronavirus facts amid pandemic

LG: Can you recommend a specific platform for certain ages?

Dr. R: The reality is whatever age number you choose, it’s not going to be the same for every child. Even siblings in the same family! There are some 10-year-olds who are fine in virtually any social media context because they know how to respect themselves and each other enough to use them well. And there are 20-year-olds who aren’t. So I think the key is not to follow some sort of magical algorithm — one size fits all — but more to say: work with your child. Obviously Facebook Messenger Kids is a good middle ground to help them try things out in a mentored environment with parent involvement. When you get into other things, sit right next to the child, watch them go through it. Have them teach you how to do it, because frankly, kids know better how to navigate TikTok than parents do. They are technically adept but don’t have executive function to stay healthy and safe and be respectful and mindful of each other.

The real issue here is us learning to parent in the digital space. Us learning to bring our same values to bear on it. I would even say I have moved away from using terms like developmentally appropriate because appropriate is a values-laden term. Let’s think about developmentally optimal. What is optimal not just for all children but for this child at this point in his or her life. What needs does she or he have for these tools? And is he or she ready to take on responsibility to themselves, their friends and society to function in this space? Can they function in this space independently, or do they need a learner’s permit? Do they need to be using… a more curated and mentored environment?

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An in-depth interview with Dr. Michael Rich will be published Monday, April 20 on the Family Matters podcast.