I recently held a technology workshop for parents on social media. Social media is a very popular topic among parents of tweens and teens. From my conversations with parents, they feel that their knowledge and experience of social media is far inferior to their children’s and it worries them because they are not part of their children’s online lives. Parents have a natural instinct to protect their children and this is one area where they feel they cannot do as good a job as they want. Parents are aware of the potential dangers and pitfalls of an online presence while their children seem to be somewhat naïve and unaware of how their digital footprint will affect them in later years. While parents want to be a part of this world and help guide their children, a lot of parents are completely baffled as to where to start. The title of the workshop was “Help! My child is a social media expert, how can I keep up?” and the aim of this workshop was to demonstrate to parents what exactly their children do on social media and how they can become more involved. So, I wasn’t too surprised when we had huge interest and attendance that day.
Social media study among teens
Before the workshop, I conducted a social media survey among our middle school students from Grade six to eight. I will refer to them as Teens. This survey captured information such as students’ grade, if they were a member of a social media website, whether they managed their own profile, what “real” information they include on their social networking profile, the main social media platforms they use, how often they use social media, what do they use it for, who do they connect with and if they accept friend requests from strangers. The results were interesting but not in the way we thought!
Out of the 200 students who took the survey, 91% are members of social media websites, and 64% have their own profile while 23% share their profile with their parents. When asked what “real” information they provide on their profiles 68% said they provide their real name, 69% said they provide photos of themselves, their family and friends, 36% post videos of themselves, their family and friends while 37% provide their real email address. The main reason for this is because their “friends/followers” on their social media accounts are actual friends. The main social media platforms used among the children were WhatsApp, Skype, Instagram, YouTube and SnapChat. The children don’t use Facebook as that’s seen as uncool and something that the adults and older people use! It belongs to the past!
The majority of the students surveyed said that they access their social media sites seven days per week but only use social media for about one hour per day. As expected, social media performs a very important social function in teens lives, it is an important extension of their face to face friendships, 91% stated that they use social media to primarily connect and chat with friends. Other important uses were to share experiences (57%) and photos (53%) with friends as well as find out information (32%). Following on from that, 89% of the students said that they only connect with friends and family and people they know. A mere 8% said that their profile is public and they connect with everyone, however the majority of students said that they don’t accept friend requests from strangers. This was encouraging to the parents. On the basis of the information stemming from the survey, my team and I thought it would be a good idea to have the kids come to the workshop and speak to the parents directly so they could understand better the results of the survey and pose questions that their own children wouldn’t answer!
The social media workshop
Instead of me talking to the parents about various apps that Teens use and why they use them, I asked four Middle School students if they would attend the workshop and co-present with me. They jumped at the chance to be in the hot seat! After all, they are the expert users of social media, so who better to talk on this subject than the kids themselves! After introductions were made they took the lead and what happened in that workshop was wonderful to see! The students were amazing. They took the lead effortlessly and confidently and gave the parents their own expert advice on why they use the apps, how they use them, how they deal with derogatory or nasty comments online, what to look out for and the importance of setting boundaries and rules at home. The parents were completely engaged and visibly disappointed when it was time for the students to go back to class. They were definitely a hard act to follow afterwards!
The most popular messaging apps
Two seventh graders and two sixth graders talked specifically about the most popular messaging apps that they and the school community us such as WhatsApp and SnapChat as well as the most popular photo/video sharing app such as Instagram. The children spoke of social media like it was a vital part of them. It was very clear that social media enhances their social connections, it is an extension of their face-to-face friendships.
WhatsApp is an extremely popular texting app among the students. They create group lists, whole grade lists, best friend lists, any type of list to connect and communicate with each other. These group lists form a very important social function for the children. Even though they may not be part of the conversation they can see what’s happening and feel part of the social fabric of school and other friendship groups. The students themselves said that being part of all these group chats can be tiresome, its good to be in the loop and know what’s going on but they admitted that keeping in the loop can become very time consuming and so they will ignore some messages so they can concentrate on more important things. So parents, you don’t have to worry too much, your teens can decipher which conversation threads are important and which ones are not.
SnapChat is a text and video messaging app that allows the students to take quick pictures or videos and send them to their friends. The students said it is ideal for sharing funny moments, activities or even food with friends. They can add a caption or doodle to photos or videos or even create their own “Story” which involves a series of un-posed, natural photos taken throughout the day. The photos and videos disappear automatically after ten seconds once opened by their friends. The students advised the parents that although the photos and videos disappear, they are aware that they are stored on servers and they never go away. While the parents worry about disappearing photos being saved on servers somewhere, the kids didn’t seem too bothered. After all, they are just sending random selfies and goofy photos to their friends, what’s the problem with that?
Instagram is probably the most used photo and video app among the children. They love it because they don’t have to write too much text – a picture tells a thousand words so they spend time taking photos and videos of random things that they and their friends or they and their family are doing and will post to their Instagram account. They only follow people they want to so they only see things in their feed that they want to see. According to the children, the best thing about Instagram is the fact that there are very few adults on it! It is mainly a site for young people, a social place to share experiences with friends and family. There are no advertisements or spam articles to take the children off task as is the case with Facebook, everything in their feed is focused on content that they are interested in.
Group chats and friendship using social media
Teens like to try out new apps that their friends talk about. If you don’t have the app, you’re not going to be part of group chats and won’t know what’s going on in friendship circles. And this is where you lose credibility and coolness at a time in your life when it’s important to be part of social circles.
Dealing with problems on social media
When asked by parents how they deal with nasty comments or taunts on social media all of the students said that they would deal with the problem themselves, by blocking the offender. If the comments were threatening they would take screen shots and show this to their parents or a trusted teacher. This piece of information was encouraging to the parents, as it showed that their children are not quite as naïve as they think.
Ensuring your child is safe online
As a parent, it is essential to know who your children are friends with, both online and face-to-face. Get to know them and their parents. If they mention “new’ friends names, don’t be afraid to ask questions about these new friends, find out all you can about them and try to meet them. I always tell parents that the best thing you can do is have a good, open and honest relationship with your child. Encourage constant conversations, ask them open ended questions about school, their friends, their after school clubs. Talk about different scenarios such as someone sending them a nasty comment or texting something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Work through how best to deal with these potential scenarios together. Know where your children are and what they are doing all the time. Be vigilant for sudden changes in behaviour, for example if your child suddenly becomes withdrawn and sullen or you feel they have suddenly become secretive about their life and friends, this is when it’s time to take action. Talk to your child, if your child refuses to share what is going on, the next step is to talk to your child’s teachers. It could be bullying in school and teachers can get to the bottom of it. If it is more sinister, such as grooming, its imperative that you talk with your child and let them know that if any online conversations make them feel uncomfortable they should tell you or show you so you can block this “friend” and inform the police. Instil the need for keeping themselves, their personal information and location private at all times. They should only “friend” people they know. Your child should always be able to confide in you.
A workshop on social media usage among teenagers wouldn’t be complete without an understanding of the workings of the teenage brain. Knowing what’s going on with their children’s development during the teenage years can help parents understand their children’s obsession with social media and wanting their own mobile device. The teenage brain is still under construction. The prefrontal cortex is still developing. This is responsible for goal setting, attention, making executive decisions, understanding consequences and self-control. This explains why teens often engage in risky behaviour and are responsive to emotionally charged situations. Teens have no sense of consequences – this doesn’t happen until the age of 25! Teens are also super sensitive to rewards (i.e. “likes”). Peer acceptance and social acceptance are of paramount importance, which is why they will do silly things to impress their friends and will post silly pictures to make their friends laugh. They want to be accepted and liked. Teens strive for as many likes as they can get, the amount of “likes” increases their sense of self worth and value to their friends/peers.
The main advice from the students? “Parents, don’t stress!”
At the end of their presentation, the main advice the students gave parents was don’t get stressed about us being on social media. It’s our space to connect with our friends and to stay in the loop with what’s going on. This is important to us. Our social lives are vital and we are able to ignore group chats if they are silly and not immediately important to us. However, we do need to check our texts just to make sure! We are also able to handle nasty comments, we prefer to deal with them ourselves first before bothering you. Trust us, we will come to you if there is a problem. It is good to have rules at home, we need them. At the end of the day it is sometimes a relief when its time to turn off the phone and go to bed, we can have a break before it all starts again tomorrow!
Finally, my advice to parents is don’t be afraid to set boundaries and rules at home. Rules are important to children. They provide a sense of security. Some rules that I have suggested to parents include:
- Drawing up a contract at home between you and your child. Set out expectations for using of social media. Homework first then social time for a set amount of time in the evening. Drawing up the contract together encourages some meaningful conversations between you. Having your child involved in setting the rules gives them a sense of responsibility and ownership.
- You should have access to your child’s social media accounts until a certain age (again, you can decide this together in your contract). Know who your child’s “friends” are!
- Phones/ mobile devices switched off and left in a family room when your child goes to bed. No electronic devices allowed in the bedroom after bedtime.
- No texting/chatting while eating at the dinner table (that includes breakfast and dinner). Family meals are for face-to-face conversations
- Don’t ban or forbid social media sites because you are scared. Children are curious and will only want what you forbid even more! This will encourage them to go behind your back. Its far better to openly explore and talk about these sites together. You lose the fear and they may lose interest!
- As a parent you must lead by example. If your child sees you constantly texting and answering emails, even during family meals, they will emulate this behaviour and think it perfectly normal.
By Nicola White – Educational Technology Coach – International School of Zug and Luzern
The International School of Zug and Luzern (ISZL) is an independent co-educational, non-profit day school, from Pre-School to Grade 12 serving the international community of Central Switzerland. The school contributes towards creating additional learning space for students from different nationalities.