Listen: Dr Justin Coulson chats about kids and social media.
What are your kids chatting about on social media? Which social platforms do they use? Do they meet the minimum age to use them? (You’d be surprised!)
And are all their online friends, actually their friends in real life?
These are some of the questions to consider if your children use social media, according to parenting expert Dr Justin Coulson of Happy Families. In a chat with Hope Media, Dr Coulson said navigating the social media maze was new territory for the current generation of mums and dads.
“We are the first generation of parents to be raising kids in this digital age,” Dr Coulson said. “Our parents didn’t have to do this with us. We’re kind of breaking new ground. And it’s really, really tricky.”
However some simple keys can help guide parents through the minefield.
1. Are My Kids – And Their Friends – Being Themselves Online?
The first key is to make sure your children are being themselves.
“When you’re online, the anonymity that comes with being online means that people try and get away with a whole lot more,” Dr Coulson said. “It’s not just kids. Grownups do it as well.”
He said many social apps, such as ask.fm, Twitter, Tumblr, WhatsApp, Instagram and Kik, allow users to have an alias or ‘nickname’. This enables people of all ages to hide their identity, or even pose as someone else.
“I think the number one thing we want to make sure of is that our kids are actually being themselves,” he said. “The research actually shows that when we have to identify ourselves, we tend to behave a lot more.”
Who Are My Childrens’ Online Friends?
The second part of this advice is to know whether your kids’ online friends are honest about their identity, too. Knowing whether their social media friends are people they know in real life, is key to their safety.
2. Have I Set Boundaries On Their Social Media Use?
Dr Coulson said parents should stay a step ahead and set boundaries around social media use, early. That way, when your kids start to push the limits, you’ll be ready with a response.
“When kids behave inappropriately on social media, ideally the boundaries will have already been in place,” he said, “and you’ll have had the conversation already. So they will know what is acceptable and what is appropriate.
“Every now and then parents find out their kids are on social media and they didn’t even know until the horse has bolted. So it is about calling them on it, letting them know ‘I spotted this’, or ‘I saw you share that inappropriate picture or make that inappropriate comment’, or ‘it looked to me like you were bullying’. And then you discipline them.”
3. How Do I Discipline When The Rules Are Broken?
If a child or teenager is caught out using bad language or content on social media, or breaking the boundaries you’ve set, then it’s crucial to discipline them effectively. And that doesn’t always mean punishment, according to Dr Coulson.
“We need to treat this in a similar way to the way we’d treat it if it happened offline,” he said.
Discipline Doesn’t Have To Mean Punishment
“A lot of people think discipline means punishment. But the most effective discipline is when we problem-solve together. So the consequence of poor behaviour is that “we need to have a conversation about this, I need to make sure that I’ve taught you properly”.
“This approach tends to get better results. When we start to threaten the kids and withdraw privileges, and ban them, it builds a lot of resentment and the kids just get sneakier and do things when we’re not watching.”
Sit The Kids Down For A Chat
“So it’s far more effective if we can sit down with them and say ‘I saw you do this, this is not the way we do it, can you tell me what my problem with it is, and what should we be doing instead?’ And then we get them to do the right thing moving forward.”
4. Should I Know My Kids’ Social Media Passwords?
Having knowledge of your childrens’ passwords is only appropriate up until a certain age, said Dr Coulson. For older teens, it’s important to respect their privacy.
“I personally think that in the early stages, it’s probably good to know their passwords,” he said, “but as they get older, about 15 or 16, if they’ve demonstrated that they can be trustworthy, then I think we’ve just got to let them start to make their own decisions.
“They will be adults in a couple of years and they’ve got to start to learn how to have these online interactions healthily. We should certainly be monitoring but I think there comes a time where password knowledge is not appropriate.”
5. Do My Kids Meet The Minimum Age?
You may be surprised to learn the variety of age restrictions on the major social platforms.
The minimum age increases on other platforms. It’s 14 for Linkedin, 16 for WhatsApp, 17 for Vine, and 18 for YouTube, WeChat and Kik. Dr Coulson said it’s important to know and enforce these age limits.
“Young children don’t need to be, and shouldn’t be, exposed to some of the content that’s on Instagram and all the other apps,” he said. “Parents have to learn how to monitor and set those limits and let kids know that some of these apps are simply not allowed until they turn the appropriate age. Those are the rules. It’s been set up that way to keep kids safe.”
6. Are My Kids On Kik – And Do They Use It Safely?
Kik is a free texting app that potentially poses a problem for parents. Interestingly, while it’s rated for age 17 and over, according to Fairfax Media experts say most users are children aged 11 to 15.
It’s difficult to monitor as conversations can’t be viewed publicly, and police have called on parents to be wary of the app as most users don’t use real names. Users don’t have to share their name or identity, and many young people use it in conjunction with Instagram to meet new people and talk to each other privately, according to the blog Instagramers. After sharing photos of themselves on Instagram, some users then connect one-on-one with other ‘Instagramers’ by going to Kik and using a similar “nick”, or nickname.
While the Kik age restriction is 18, teens aged 13 to 17 can still sign up if they have their folks’ permission. Dr Coulson said knowing these rules helps to protect children.
“We’ve got to be on top of these things,” he said.
7. Am I Monitoring Their Social Media In A Friendly Way?
It’s important to keep an eye on your kids’ online behaviour, but not in a heavy-handed way, says Dr Coulson. Instead, approach the topic in a way that keeps the conversation open.
“We’ve get be having really effective communication, ongoing conversations [with our kids],” he said. “You can’t ban them otherwise they get sneaky and find other ways around it. So we’ve got to be doing what I call ‘shoulder surfing’. Glance over their shoulder, keep on monitoring what they’re doing and keep on having the conversations. Otherwise they end up being exposed to things they shouldn’t.
“There are too many people out there with terrible ideas about what’s appropriate and what’s not, and children are regularly, genuinely endangered, because of their premature social media engagement. The rules are there for a reason, they keep us and our kids safe. It matters.”
About Dr Justin Coulson
Founder of happyfamilies.com.au, Dr Justin Coulson, is a parenting speaker, author and researcher, and a Senior Associate at the Positive Psychology Institute. He shares parenting advice in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, on TV’s The Project and Studio 10, and on kidspot.com.au.