Teaching Kids To Be Smart About Social Media

A few years ago, a group of middle school girls posted some mean pictures on a “private” Instagram page. They didn’t worry about anyone outside of their group seeing the pictures, because one had to be invited in to see the page. About 20 minutes after the pictures were posted, a copy of them showed up in my email inbox. It only took 20 minutes for a parent to see the pictures, take a screenshot, and email them over. That night I was on the phone until about 11:30pm  with crying parents and children. How could such empathetic, intelligent, caring young women do something so mean? Could the school do something to help?

All of our children are intelligent and empathetic, but they are still growing and developing. Particularly during middle school, they are trying on different behaviors to see what fits. This experimentation is normal and appropriate, but in this technological time, it can have bigger consequences than they understand. And, yes, the school can help.

How we help at Sheridan

At Sheridan, our community rule is to respect ourselves, each other, and the environment. This rule includes our online behavior. Our teachers talk with all of the Third through Eighth grade students about appropriate technology use and the possible long-term consequences of inappropriate posts. We talk about the permanent nature of what is posted, even on platforms that are set to delete the post after viewing or those that are set to “private”. We talk about inclusivity and how pictures of groups of students having fun together can hurt others’ feelings. Nevertheless, they are young and impulsive and can make mistakes.

How you can help at home

You can help them learn positive technology etiquette at home as well. The following are a few suggestions. Feel free to blame me when your children balk at them.

  • Hold off on getting your child a cell phone for as long as you can. The timing of this is different for different families, and there are good reasons for children to have cell phones. The kids will tell you that everyone has one, but that’s not always true and peer pressure isn’t a good reason to get a phone.
  • Make sure all technology sleeps outside of the bedroom. It is distracting to healthy sleep and late night is when most of the inappropriate use happens.
  • Monitor your child’s phone. All of our kids are too young to have complete privacy. The way to teach them that anyone can see what they post or text is for you to see what they post and text. Tell them that this is a condition of the privilege. It’s not because you don’t trust them, but because you want to guide them to be responsible technology users. If they know you are checking, they will develop good habits.
  • Make sure you know what apps they use and know all of their passwords. This can be a matter of safety.
  • If you have a group of kids over, have them turn in their phones at the door. This is not only good for their socialization, but it prevents them from posting pictures online that result in one person feeling left out because she was not invited.
  • Know they will make mistakes. Use the mistakes as learning opportunities. Ask what could have been done differently and what needs to happen now.
  • Ask them what rights they feel they have regarding technology use. See if there are places you can show trust and support by allowing them to shape the rules. For example, if they feel they should be able to text at any time, you might say that you feel that takes away from family time but you can establish a time together when texting is allowed. The Common Sense Media website has some great family contracts you can use for different age groups.
  • Ask for help. Our technology team, and Stephanie, Jay and I, are all here to help.

Consequences at school

At school, we work hard to keep up with the students and we endeavor to partner with you in teaching our kids to be responsible and respectful in all aspects of their lives. If the students’ social media posts affect the emotional health or safety of others in our community, the school will take appropriate disciplinary action and help the child make amends and learn from the mistake, regardless of whether the post was originated at home or at school.  Disciplinary action can range from a discussion to suspension depending on the severity of the mistake. Our children are young, so learning this hard lesson now is important and can protect them from more permanent consequences later in life.

Parenting and educating in the digital age is an ever-changing challenge. Just when we’ve mastered one platform, the kids are on to the next. If we partner together to model respectful behavior and guide our children as they navigate their world, we can give them the tools they will need for their future.