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How to help your kids navigate social media without getting lost

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Two young woman dance in front of a smartphone camera.
 (iStock/Nattakorn Maneerat)

Six years ago, Harvard withdrew admissions offers from 10 high school seniors it had previously accepted. School officials had gotten wind of jokes circulating on the students’ private Facebook group — memes that made light of school shootings and found hilarity in the Holocaust, among other repellant takes — and reversed course. After the George Floyd murder in 2020, more young people who had posted racist or apparently bigoted posts in their youth faced similar punishment when sleuths unearthed and shared their online offenses. A prominent New York Times story spread the word to ambitious kids and anxious parents: be careful what you say online, because it never goes away

Author and media/technology guru Devorah Heitner heard all about it. Panicked parents approached her and asked, how can I keep my kid from going viral for all the wrong reasons? Heitner’s latest book, Growing Up In Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World, addresses these and other concerns related to kids’ use and misuse of social media, as well as the subversive impact of surveillance culture. Heitner wants to help young people and their parents better navigate the digital universe.

But first, let’s be clear about the likely downstream impact of foolish or cruel social media posts on college admissions. Most applicants needn’t agonize about an old SnapChat shot or Facebook message derailing their college dreams; admissions officers barely have the time to review the applications on their desks, let alone comb through ancient Instagram posts. What’s more important is that kids don’t get the message from the grown-ups in their lives that what matters is not getting caught. “I’d worry much more about kids who think genocide is funny than that they didn’t get into Harvard,” Heitner told me. Better to think about children’s character — what kind of teammate or classmate or citizen they are — than on the consequences of a callous post.

What parents should be worried about, or at least attentive to, are subterranean violations of privacy: social media companies scooping up seemingly innocuous data, filtering it through their algorithms, and turning it back on kids to drive consumption. Parents also need to pay attention to creepy sexual harassment on Instagram, which has become routine for girls. Though common, few kids will tell their parents.

Heitner’s advice to parents is grounded in mentorship and communication. “We want our kids to make good decisions, even when we are not right there,” she writes. “Mentoring is better than monitoring if we want to set our kids up for success.” She offers these and other suggestions to parents looking for guidance: 

  • Heal thyself. Grown-ups are famous for tut-tutting about kids these days, but many of us are guilty of the very behavior we bemoan: cocooning with our phones at all hours, lamenting the failure of our thousands of friends to like a brilliant post, and sharing personal information haphazardly online. To encourage prudent phone and social media use with kids, adults need to adopt it themselves. As a practical matter, that means detaching regularly from electronic devices and downplaying the impact of likes and follows. It also requires parents to be cautious about “sharenting” — displaying triumphant photos of our kids online.
  • Minimize surveillance. Some kids report being fine with their parents tracking their every move, monitoring their grades and reviewing their texts. But kids acquiescing to their parents’ obsessive worry doesn’t make it wise or right. Keeping a constant eye on kids’ whereabouts generates suspicion and signals an essential mistrust in the child; they can’t be counted on to handle their own assignments, or travel from school to the library without getting lost. Growing up means figuring out how to manage oneself and carry out responsibilities. Better to mentor kids in developing agency than snooping and spying, which only allows for “catching” kids after the fact.
  • Talk about social media. Immersed in flawless worlds where everyone is celebrating fabulous events that don’t include you, normal kids can easily feel like losers. To offset the enervating effect of Instagram and TikTok, parents need to communicate with their children about…reality. Remind them that social media imagery is curated. Invite them to assess their feelings when perusing these apps, so they learn how to understand and manage their emotions. Encourage actual activities with friends. Remind them to read posts before “liking” them. “Others’ social media is a performance,” Heitner said. And if kids do something dumb or foolish online to elicit a reaction, resist the temptation to yank their phones away; doing so will drive them to keep secrets. Instead, use the episode as an opportunity to address why posting certain pictures or liking edgy takes can backfire and give others the wrong impression of what kind of person you are.
  • Guide them on how to share personal information. “There’s no opting out of mentoring our kids on technology,” Heitner said. Help them to be thoughtful about what they share, rather than impulsive. Encourage them to pause before posting something sensitive, and to challenge their own reasoning; if it’s to accumulate likes, that’s probably a bad reason. Advise them that if their post is deeply personal, they would be wise to keep it within a trusted group — friends who have demonstrated they can handle others’ personal disclosures. Though they might resist, kids intent on sharing intimate stories can be encouraged to tell their trusted friends in person rather than through Instagram. And unless the child is floundering, don’t snoop. No good can come of it.
  • Talk about sexting. Regrettable it may be, but most middle school children know about explicit imagery popping up on their phones. Heitner encourages parents to talk with their children about never forwarding explicit pictures, regardless of the source. Explain how doing so breaches another’s privacy and transgresses ethics — while also violating the law in some states. A parent might invite an exchange the next time a celebrity’s private photos are disseminated against her will. “It’s not an optional conversation,” Heitner told me.
  • Help them through the worst. Despite a parent’s best efforts, some kids do get caught up in social media scandals. There’s a way to handle this, Heitner says. First, let them know you understand their feelings of shame, humiliation or anger. Protect them from physical danger if such a risk exists. Then, invite them to reflect on and interrogate their own actions in the episode. And always set a good example: if other children are publicly shamed, don’t reshare and pile on. It’s during such dreadful periods that a family custom of open communication becomes most valuable. 

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