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Parenting In The Age of Social Media

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Jul 20, 2015

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Social Media Week theme iconToday’s parents are grappling with an issue no previous generation has faced: social media’s place in our lives and
in our children’s lives. Each day this week, at least one post will tackle the topic from a different angle. Read on and, as always, make the decisions best for you and your family.


When Malini*, 14, logged onto her Facebook page one evening after school, she found a rather nasty comment on one of her recent profile pics—left by a perfect stranger.

“You think you’re beautiful?” he’d written, “You’re so ugly, I feel like vomiting when I see your face.”

Malini froze in shock as she read the words, and their viciousness clawed at her for weeks. But she felt she couldn’t speak to her parents about it for fear of being forbidden from using Facebook altogether.

“All my friends are on Facebook,” Malini says. “I couldn’t give it up, but I was scared to log in after that. It wasn’t until one of my friends showed me the privacy setting that I realized that too many of my posts had gone public and I wasn’t even aware of it.”

Today, she still doesn’t know who posted the insult, but she’s learnt that personal security online matters just as much as it does in the real world.

Social media is so much a part of children’s lives, now, that to indiscriminately restrict its use or demonize it is futile. After all, it can be used for good – to research a homework assignment, delve deeper into a subject or keep in touch with extended family and friends – as much as for indolence or blind malice. As of 2014, 108.9 million Indians use Facebook – roughly 20 percent of whom are 18 or younger – placing India second in number of users of the world’s most popular social media site. So the question most parents face now is not whether to allow children on social media – 21 million of them are already there– but how to know what parameters to place on its use.

A PRIVILEGE, NOT A NECESSITY

Setting boundaries and supervising screen time helps children use social media responsibly, experts say. But instead of issuing orders or proposing blanket bans, many advocate setting up online time as something that  must be earned— a privilege, not a necessity.

“For instance, there should be no playing games, watching TV, or internet use until all other tasks or chores have been completed,” says Ritika S. Aggarwal, Psychological Counsellor at Jaslok Hospital & Research Centre, Mumbai.

Aggarwal advises setting a mutually acceptable time for children to be on social media and ensuring that they adhere to it strictly. However, she cautions against making rules so extreme that parents are unable to enforce them—or observe the rules themselves.

“We can’t expect our children to give up (social media) if we’re addicted ourselves,” says Gayatri Swaminathan, clinical psychologist at TalkItOver Counselling service, Bengaluru. “The rules should apply to everyone in the house.”

A HAZARD TO BE MONITERED

Attacks from strangers, like the one Malini experienced, aren’t the only pitfalls of unbridled social media use.

“Once something is posted online, a digital footprint is created,” says Aggarwal.

Children, however, seldom understand the permanent nature of the Internet or what the repercussions of carelessness could be—partly because they are not wired to. The prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that understands long-term consequences – doesn’t develop fully until around age 25. Therefore, parents need explain the do’s and don’ts of social media interactions and Internet use.

“My kids have Gmail accounts with strict instructions not to accept any Google + requests nor to open email from people they don’t know,” says Rasana Atreya, author and mother of two. If they’re in doubt, she says, they know to check with her first.

Ushadevi Shenbagaraj, an entrepreneur based in Madurai, also uses this approach. She was always apprehensive, she says, when her two girls, now aged 21 and 17, logged onto the Internet when they were younger.

“I told them that not everyone is who they say they are online and always advised them to stay alert and exercise caution,” she says.

Swaminathan suggests some additional strict instructions for kids: never share personal information, including one’s address, school or even photographs of the distinctive landmarks or streets near home. And don’t accept friend requests from people with whom one doesn’t have a mutual friend.

While this approach may work for older children, other parents rely on password protected child-locks on sites to ensure their young children aren’t accidentally exposed to inappropriate material. Agarwal, however, advises open communication as the best course to monitoring children’s social media activity.

“Monitor usage, but don’t infringe on privacy,” she says. “This is a very fine line which you will need to navigate.”

Ensure account privacy settings are in place, position the computer in a central location that parents can monitor with ease, and take a genuine interest in what children are doing online.

“Children should be able to discuss anything they find online that is disturbing or uncomfortable,” says Swaminathan. “If there is any trouble, don’t reprimand or blame them. Your support will ensure that they stay safe and use technology responsibly.”

A BALANCE AND A BACKSWING

One of our fundamental needs as a species is acceptance—a desire that reaches a fever pitch during adolescence. Social media can build children up with the number of ‘likes’ on a photo as easily as it can tear them down with nasty comments. The former can draw kids into valuing online life more than real interactions and activities; a 2012 study found social media more addictive than cigarettes.

Aggarwal advises parents to watch out for signs of social media addiction such as: decreased interest in activities that do not involve technology, feeling more comfortable talking to people online, difficulty communicating, not completing school work or household chores, and lying about or hiding technology use. All these behaviours should signal to parents that they need to restrict time spent on social media.

It’s best, however, to head off this behaviour from the start. Swaminathan suggests gently pushing kids toward real-world activities that they’ve always found enjoyable, until they gradually accept less time online.

Interestingly, we may already be in the backswing of the social media craze, as kids who grew up with these sites in the background come of age.

Atreya didn’t allow her son to use Facebook until he was the permissible age—a rule seldom followed by children, who often lie about their age in order to sign up and use social media. Yet, Atreya’s son obeyed. When he turned 13, she fully expected him to step up his requests for a Facebook account. When he was strangely silent, she questioned him about it.

“He said most of his friends – all 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds – have smartphones now and that it was really annoying when they interrupt conversations to check their status updates,” she says. “He mentioned how social media was making them unsocial and that he had decided to wait before being a part of it.”

*Name changed to protect the privacy of a minor.

Additional reporting by Liesl Goecker.

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Written By Kamala Thiagarajan

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the International New York Times, The Reader’s Digest (Indian edition), National Geographic Traveller, American Health & Fitness, Firstpost.com and more. She has written articles on the subjects of health, fitness, gender issues, travel and lifestyle for a global audience and has been published in newspapers and magazines in over ten countries. Visit her virtual home at kamala-thiagarajan.com or follow her @Kamal_t

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