This article appears in the December issue of 400 Life.
It gets no lack of heated debated in our community — social media: a good thing or a bad thing?
What’s not so widely discussed is how parents (and their teens) can take responsibility for their answer. With a little smart family communication (one that doesn’t even have to do with what device you’re using), we can take steps as a community to make digital connectivity something positive, and beneficial.
“Being a parent in this new digital world is incredibly overwhelming because things are changing constantly,” said Kristen Deuschle, district media specialist for Forsyth County Schools. “Parents can’t keep up with all of the new apps and websites, and that can be a scary thing for kids, because there’s no real break from that social anxiety.”
Social anxiety isn’t on a list by itself, either. Excessive time spent on devices means less time doing schoolwork, staying active or spending face-to-face time with friends and family. It can lead to loss of sleep, depression and slipping grades, not to mention the dangers that meeting strangers online brings.
But there are ways to combat these social media stressors, and learning to play an active role in your children’s social media habits is the first step, according to Deuschle. Especially when that role isn’t about control and punishment, but about communication, honesty and trust established early on. It can be a game changer in creating a healthy balance from the get go.
Deuschle equips parents with the tools to navigate their role through the website she designed as a resource to the school system’s Digital Citizenship Plan standards, a curriculum she also designed.
“I talked with parents who were concerned about how they could monitor what their kids were doing online, and my talks at parents’ nights weren’t enough,” she said. “So, I designed a website called Digital Citizenship Tools for Families. It covers everything from cyber bullying and self-image to the healthy balance … basically tools to match each of the standards. Parents will find videos, infographics, articles and more to help them navigate through this stage.”
The website supports FCS’s philosophy on digital citizenship, which places value on the rich learning experiences that technology brings to the classrooms, but stresses that students must be taught how to use online resources responsibly alongside their parents and guardians. The core standards include the digital footprint and responsibility, online safety and privacy, creative credit and copyright and information literacy in addition to the aforementioned points from Deuschle.
“There is so much information at the tip of their fingers,” said one Forsyth County parent, Hilory Harding, of the digital resources kids have today.
“I like how we can communicate with our daughters, and vice versa, instantly about school, work, etc., making day-to-day communication easier for our busy schedules, but I dislike how it makes teens feel like they need to put themselves out there, which can cause self-esteem issues and add more stress than they already get at school.”
The Hardings take a more hands-off approach now that their daughter, Emma, has had her phone for several years — but it wasn’t always that way.
“It was understood from the beginning that we would have complete access to her accounts, but over time, it’s been very rare to find anything of a questionable nature. We reiterate all the time, once you put something online, it’s out there for the world to see and is next to impossible to completely remove.”
Emma admittedly spends about six hours a day checking apps like Snapchat, Instagram, GroupMe and connecting with friends or checking in on school work. In fact, she said that if she wasn’t online, she’d be missing out socially and academically.
“Social media has just become such a big influence on pop culture amongst teens that if you don’t stay up to date on the coolest TikTok dance or the funniest meme or even the latest influencer drama then you will struggle trying to keep up,” she said. “But I feel like if I wasn’t on social media that I would be doing so much more with my life. I wouldn’t be as distracted as I am right now, or as influenced by others. I feel like I would be my own person and have my own identity and not look to others for the right answers.”
Another Forsyth County parent, Elizabeth Humphries, appreciates the way new apps like Life360 can help her keep track of her daughter, Emma Humphries, but reiterates that same sentiment — how easily it can negatively affect a young person’s self esteem.
“The speed that information is able to travel and become viral in one click of a button scares me. One click can change anyone’s future for better or worse,” she said. “But, it makes me more aware of my children’s influences and who they are associating with. [We have] constant conversations around etiquette on various social media sites, and discuss how it can positively or negatively impact their future. I spend time monitoring their online interactions, which is something that I did not expect to be a part of my parenting role.”
But it’s an imperative part, according to Deuschle.
“It’s about doing two things correctly — reading expert information and making family communication part of your plan,” said Deuschle. “I’ve provided the first part through the [Digital Citizenship] website, but the biggest thing is to communicate as a family. I like to promote family technology contracts, simply for families to talk together about how much time they should be spending online, and set parameters about uploading new apps, etc. Communication is far more effective than just putting controls on everything. An open conversation — where mistakes are OK — starts to establish trust.”
She also recommends a few other rules, such as parents having usernames and passwords for all apps their teens are on, and establish rules for screen time as a family. On the website, there are safety tests and tips for parents, inside knowledge on what some of the latest apps are all about and ways to kick start these healthy conversations at home.
There are some pros to social media, of course. It allows kids and teens to be creative in new ways outside of school, they can communicate with people their age and ask all kinds of questions they may not be able to ask face to face, and explore their interests on practically any subject.
“Social media and digital resources have been able to inspire me and allow me to inspire others,” said Emma Humphries. “By being connected with friends no matter what, I have been able to help my friends get through rough spots, even if I could not be there in person to talk them through. I have also had people reach out to me when they knew I was dealing with a loss or something difficult and be there for me in that time. I have access to people who can build me up no matter what through social media.”
Finding the healthy balance between accessing the pros and avoiding the negatives is where we get tripped up, but playing an active role as a parent is where we can start to take strides toward what the Digital Citizenship Plan calls a positive digital footprint.
“I talk about social media and the Internet with my mom all of the time,” Humphries added. “She reminds me that if anyone I don’t know personally tries to follow me or reaches out to me online, I should come to her to make sure that person will have no access to any of my accounts or data. She follows me on all social media and if she has any concerns or questions about something I post, we discuss it and remove it if needed. We are always talking about ways to be safe and what is appropriate to post.”
Deuschle compares the situation for parents as though we gave our kids a car full of gas but without any driving lessons. They’ve gotten deep into social media, but we haven’t taught them how to use it safely. With a little responsibility, some guidance from the experts and honest communication with our families, we can make the Internet safe “to drive,” and an inspiring place for this generation to leave their mark.
To check out the resources from FCS’s Digital Citizenship Plan, visit www.forsyth.k12.ga.us/citizenship.
Story by Jennifer Colosimo for 400 Life.