Increasingly, as I get together with friends and family, we seem to be having the same conversation over and over again. Namely, is the internet a safe place for your children? And more particularly, is social media safe for kids, tween and/or teens?
It seems a local private school sent out a notice to parents in advance of the school year demanding that all internet enabled computers in the home must have more than just a filtering program, but a big brother program as well. The thinking is that if the entire family knows that someone out there can see every site they visit, they are less likely to engage in nefarious activities. Much of the parent body is obviously upset at this intrusion into their personal lives and local drama ensues.
The Key Question
However, as we spoke about whether or not this policy was sensible, enforcable or rational, an interesting topic came up: is digital social media child-safe?
Social Media is not safe for kids
One group of parents were vehimently opposed to social media overall.
- I don't want my kid handing out with those kids. The web gives our impressionable kids (teens included) easy access to all of their friends, friends, friends. While in real life, we have a clue where are children are and can impact who they socialize with, on the web they have far greater ability to be a part of a far bigger crowd. This wasn't really about child predators, it was really about minimizing the amount of time kids spend chatting with the worst ellements in school.
- Google doesn't share my sensitivity. YouTube doesn't allow pornography, but in a household where the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition is considered offensive (at least around kids), is YouTube any better?
- Can I trust the collective? Can I really trust the unknown community to filter content for my impressionable kids?
- There are dangerous people out there. How many stories do we hear of horrible things happening due to child predators stalking seemingly safe social environments online?
- Is this even neccesary? Walking down the street is a right. Reading a newspaper is productive. Do kids really need Facebook or Twitter?
- Is this the right choice my kid's online footprint? Is it responsable for me, as a parent, to allow my child to create their online persona at 16? This will stay with him/her for the rest of his/her life! Don't they have a right to make this judgement call when they are mature enough to understand the enormity of this decision? Would you let them get a tatoo at 16?
- Everybody loves to hate porn. I'm not going to go into it but pornography seems to be an issue in any discussion around kids on the web. It's damaging. Teens can easily stay away from the domains that look like porn and feel safe to a parent.
- Everything is evil. I won't even go into the many misconceptions people have about the media, digital media and UGC. This last set of arguements typically come from well meaning parents who just don't understand the nature of the platforms.
There's nothing new, and really nothing wrong
- Kids already have access to bad friends. A kid who wants to find bad friends will find them. In school, on the bus, on Facebook... there's no use hiding from it.
- How bad can it be? Facebook and YouTube don't allow porn and do filter content. Most of the things they will see in social are generally not that much more extreme than what they will see on the street.
- My kids know better than to talk to strangers.
- If all of my kid's friends are on Facebook, can I say no? Isn't this just encouraging them to create a fake account under a different name or find another way to access Facebook? I'd rather the devil I know.
- I know my kids and I trust them. I've educated them, talk to them regularly and give them the freedom to make the right decisions.
The web is representative of everything that we are as humanity, not just who we are as a society or a neighborhood. If you wouldn't trust your kid to head off to Europe on his or her own, don't leave them on the web without first teaching them how to be safe. Just like the real world, at the right time, it is important to give them their space and teach them how to make the right decisions. You won't be with them their entire lives. Within reason.
Social media is not just about your son or daughter's circle of friends. The entire world is out there. If you wouldn't let them head out into the night with a group of friends you don't know, think about how you can impact the way they interact with other's online. Just like you can't control them in school or follow them on their first date, you can't overstep your boundaries online. Within reason.
I don't know the answer, but I know it's something we aren't going to solve without carefull and thoughtfull discussion and collaboration. What do you think?