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Setting up Social Media Safely: A Crash Course for Parents of Tween Girls

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Michelle when should I allow my daughter to have a phone and social media account?  All her friends are on snap chat and Instagram, and she feels like she is missing out.  We have talked about buying her a phone at Christmas before she goes to high school.  She is 12 years old and a very responsible girl. This is all unchartered waters for me!

I get emails like this ALL THE TIME.

I firstly want to say that I am not a cyber safety expert.  I am going to include a list of experts at the end of this blog which I would recommend you follow.  However, having worked with tweens and teens for 20 years, technology (and its management) is a topic that I can’t avoid. It’s a part of all of our worlds.

In this blog post I want to address some cyber safety basics that I recommend for all families who have tween keen to get their own social accounts. It is so easy to say “yes” to Instagram or Snap Chat when our children are tweens, but in a few more years you may wish that your “yes” came with a lot more conditions that are now hard to implement.  So, I want you to take a moment now to stop and think. The good news is that you can get in early and set things up well.

The issue of supervising your daughter online is a serious one, especially in the primary and middle school years. Too often children receive their first electronic devices with little or no guidance leaving them vulnerable to an adult world. 

I hope these six key thoughts help you make decisions in your home.

It’s Not Just When. It is How.  

There is always a lot of discussion about what is the right age to buy your child a phone or allow them access to social media.  Although we know the legal age for social media is 13 years old, most parents I know are faced with decisions about social media when their daughters are younger – usually between ages 10 and 12.  The pressure can be very strong at the end of Year 6, as they transition into high school. 

I don’t want to focus on a specific age, because families make varied decisions in this regard. However, I strongly believe that nothing magically happens when they turn 13, and there is no ‘safe’ age for a tween or teen to be unsupervised on the internet. In my opinion it is not so much when young people are allowed on social media, but HOW young people are allowed on social media.  It’s the HOW that I want to talk more about.

Never a Gift

Our daughters consider a phone as necessary as the air they breathe. They expect us to provide one for them.  However, having a phone is a privilege, not a right.  If you buy your daughter a mobile phone (or phone plan) as a gift it is really difficult to take that gift back.  After all she will argue that a gift is owned by the one who received it!  That is why I suggest that parents own all technology in their home and give their children the privilege of using it if they use it responsibly.  If the parent owns technology, they are also free to install any safety software they feel necessary.  As our daughters gets older, they will gain more autonomy online.  Take advantage of this while you can because it will only work until your daughter is old enough to buy herself a phone and a phone plan and repair her own cracked phone screen!

Crystal Clear Agreements

I think it is ridiculous to have a written agreement for everything that happens in a home. I am not personally great at keeping checklists or my kids’ chores on whiteboards or charts. I prefer a bit of random chaos.  But when it comes to social media a written contract really is essential.  Nothing should be left unsaid. Children don’t do well with inconsistent messages, so it is really important that everyone is on the same page. It forces everyone to communicate assumptions regarding their phone’s use and express their ideas and disappointments upfront.  It will also force parents to stop and think about whether their expectations are reasonable.  

Try not to leave the agreement in a place where it will be lost and forgotten. Keep it in a visible place. This will be a good reminder for both you and your daughter that you are serious about following through. During the busyness of life there will be times when you stick to the contract and times when you neglect it.  That is normal. At least a contract gives you something to come back to. I also encourage parents to let their daughters know that the agreement isn’t a rigid representation of their relationship.  Parents should be free to parent over and above the bounds of the agreement, understanding that it is impossible to write down every scenario that might take place in their relationship.

Insist on Transparency

Too often our daughters see their online world as their own private world that their parents have no right to be a part of.  When our daughters hold this belief, not only do they take uncalculated risks, it makes them more vulnerable to issues relating to paedophiles, sexting, pornography and cyber bullying.   That is why I want you to do something for me. I want you to directly ask your daughter to be completely transparent with you when it comes to her online life.  I can already hear you hesitating.  You just breathed in and you said to yourself, “Is that even possible? Do I have the right to ask her that?”

In the back of most parents’ minds is the nagging, unsettling notion that our daughters can set up fake profiles and trick any safety software we install.  We know that if we confiscate their phone it is possible that they can borrow their friend’s spare phone or purchase a second-hand phone at school the next day.  It scares us senseless so we waiver.  We hesitate.  We don’t eyeball the topic.   Although this is true, I still believe we are doing our kids a disservice if we don’t ask for transparency.  When they go for job interviews in the future there will be little an employer is unable to uncover. Their digital footprint is real. That’s why asking for transparency makes sense. It reinforces the fact that the Internet is a public place. 

The trick is to ask for transparency CONFIDENTLY.  Lay out your expectations without flinching.  I promise that if you flinch, your daughter will see it.  She can smell fear.  I often laugh when mothers tell me, “I’m surprised she hasn’t worked out that she can say no to me and I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.”  You might feel like you are bluffing your way through the management of social media but as they say, ‘you have to be in it to win it’. Never, NEVER allow your kids to bully you out of their world!

Talk About the Elephant in the Room

I have noticed that online problems can go undetected for long periods of time without parents noticing them. No matter how many contracts we draw up or how much software we install nothing can replace our relationship with our daughters.  Our intuition and communication will far outweigh any other strategy we implement.  When it comes to social media we have to have eyes in the back of our hearts. And then some.  Perception is everything.

One thing we can’t stop doing is talking openly about the things that concern us.  We can’t eliminate the risks, but we can reduce them.  Pornography, sexting, body image, cyberbullying are just some of the issues that have the potential to trip our daughters up, regardless of their age.  We should never expect our daughters to be the first person to bring up these issues. We have to be the ones who are brave enough to start the conversation.  It’s your ‘check and chat’ time.

Never, Ever Add a Full Stop

Have the mindset that these ‘elephant in the room’ conversations never really finish. You might say, “You can talk to me about this again anytime.”  Whether they take you up on it or not is up to them, but at least you are giving them the choice.  A single dad recently told me that his daughter always asks a silly (borderline irrelevant question) before she asks the question she really wants to ask.  He said to me, “I know my girl. It’s just what she does.”

The first time your daughter hears you talk about pornography or sex she is likely to think it’s totally weird and awkward, but it is amazing how quickly she will get used to it. Don’t be put off by her initial reactions. One shot at a tough topic is never enough so give yourself a few goes at it to get it right. My kids now say, “Here we go (big eye roll)… It is mum’s life lessons again.” They are so familiar with my off-the-cuff tips on life.   The more often we talk about sensitive issues, the more it reminds our daughters that the door is always open to them. It also communicates that we aren’t naive to the pressures they are facing.

Expect the Best. Prepare for the Worst.

There is no doubt that amongst all the influences that teenagers have in their lives the single most dangerous influence lives in their back pockets.  I do hear the worst stories that would make anyone’s hair stand on end.  When it comes to social media, the worst things don’t necessarily happen to the worst families.  The challenges that are associated with social media can reach anyone, anytime. No one is exempt. You don’t have to have a bad kid for them to get into serious trouble. I have had so many strong, committed families in my office with serious issues relating to social media.

A teenager’s online life comes with a range of new risks, some which parents understand and some which parents don’t understand and that is why constantly educating yourself is essential. These risks are easy for young people to take in the comfort of their own home where they feel safe.  They can happen far quicker than any risk we took as teenagers and they require far less planning. Within seconds young people can be interacting with unsafe people or content without their parents knowing. 

So, bottom line – don’t be nieve.  Don’t put your head in the sand.  Educate yourself and stay in the game.  This is one area of your child’s life where you need to be the parent. And please install safety software as an added layer of protection for your child, regardless of whether they have their own devise or use a family one.

Want to know more?

You can find more information on this topic in my book “Parenting Teenage Girls in the Age of a New Normal” available www.michellemitchell.org.  I also regularly post content on my social media pages.

Here are two video responses to the below message from a concerned parent:

My daughter confessed to playing on Omegle today. She and her friend and they are only 11. They heard about it at a 12 year olds party last night. She doesn’t want me to tell her father. We talked for ages and the issues and consequences and she cried and was very remorseful. What do I do next? I have never heard of it before. She told me one of her friends said she had already seen people masturbate on it before.

Click here to watch Part 1 – Do I Tell Dad?

Click here to watch Part 2 – What Do I Do Next? Do I contact the other girl’s mum or the school?

Software options to consider:

Our Pact

Family Zone

Net Nanny

 
Great cyber safety experts to follow:

Susan McLean – Cyber Safety Expert

eSafety Commission

Dr Kristy Goodwin

The Cyber Safety Lady

Common Sense Media

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