I’ll admit it, I love my Facebook. I especially love the way I can keep in touch with friends who live far away or reacquaint myself with people from the places where I used to live.
It means that my Mum can see my posts and know that I’m ok, I can celebrate special events with my nearest and dearest, and I can share my accomplishments with supportive people.
I can express gratitude for my blessings, be inspired by the posts of my friends, and hope that sometimes I inspire them too.
Since opening my own account in 2007, the majority of the time I’ve spent using this form of social media has been uplifting and positive, and has generally left me feeling good about myself and about the world.
But teenagers these days- who start to use social media as young as 13- do they have the inner fortitude to handle what they might see online?
Back in my day, I didn’t know if there was a party to which I wasn’t invited. It wasn’t plastered all over Instagram for me to discover. I wasn’t aware of rumours spreading around school about me unless I was unlucky enough to be in earshot and overhear it.
For youngsters these days, everything they want to know (and what they don’t) is all over the Internet. Accessible through their personal handheld device that is never more than a foot away. And constantly being updated.
Now I’m not suggesting that parents and teachers should try and ban social media for kids. Nor unplug all of their electronics, nor smash their phones (although it may be tempting).
There are plenty of examples of positive leadership being demonstrated through this powerful medium. Real social justice being enacted because of the opportunity young people have to reach so many of their peers. Wonderful candles consuming themselves to light the way for others. (Oh, and some are even making a career out of it, and raking in the cash!)
Neither am I suggesting that we should breach young people’s privacy by lurking and being overly scrutinising.
But there are some things we might consider, when we’re worried about the effects of cyber bullying on children of this vulnerable age.
If your child (understandably) doesn’t want to add you as a friend, encourage them to friend their “cool aunt” or “cool uncle” or their babysitter or that neighbour across the road. The one who you know will monitor your child’s posts for warning signs and let you know if they see anything alarming.
Notice how your child (or student) is reacting to social media and be willing to talk to them about it. Empower them with the same skills to deal with conflict online as they would in the schoolyard.
Don’t judge or try to censor your child’s online interactions without first trying these avenues yourself. The journey to understanding begins with empathy.
Encourage them to keep things in perspective. Help them to see that the number of Instagram or Twitter followers they have does not define them, and that making mistakes is part of growing up. Talk to them about how being a person who acts with integrity and kindness- both behind a screen and in “real life”- is what really matters.
Share personal stories of occasions when you had something happen to you and thought it was the end of the world- and it turned out that it wasn’t. A word of warning with this one, though- don’t try to dismiss or delegitimise their feelings. Allow them to grieve.
Plan fun family time when young people can disconnect. Play a board game, walk around the neighbourhood, go to the park. Do something distracting and fun.
And lastly, show them how to tweak their contacts. If someone is nothing but negative online, do they really want to be connected to that person in the digital world? If they witness someone being overtly bullied, should they get involved? Is there a way to stand up for them if it is safe to do so?
Ultimately, remind them that they are in control not just of what they see on their feeds, but of how they choose to respond.
And, of course, whether or not they turn their computers or phones on, and open those apps in the first place.
That is; be prepared for what you might encounter.
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