In an age where nearly one in five young Canadians (ages 15 to 29) report having experienced cyberbullying according to Statistics Canada, parents of young children and teens continue to struggle to ensure their child’s safety online.
And one way many parents feel is an effective method of doing so is by spying on their child’s social media and Internet activity, also known as “cyber snooping.” But is it something parents should be doing?
According to parenting expert Ann Douglas, there’s a difference between spying and overseeing, and parents have every right to be doing the latter.
“I think overseeing is a good word,” she says. “I don’t think we want to be sneaking around. Instead, we want to be upfront about our intentions and keeping tabs on what’s going on online because that’s part of our job as parents.”
But seeing as the issue of children and teens and cyber safety remains a baffling subject to many parents, it can be difficult for moms and dads to find that balance between spying and monitoring. So to help, Douglas offers a few tips on what adults can – and should – do to effectively and safely oversee their child’s online activities.
The appropriate age
But when is it an appropriate time or age for a child to get their own social media account? Douglas says that the decision will often depend on a kid-by-kid basis, but that during the pre-teen years is often the most fitting.
“Use your judgment, just like you would in deciding if your child is old enough to go to the store by themselves or hang out with friends at a mall,” Douglas says. “Do you think they have the judgment, and do you think they’re going to be somebody who gets in over their head or are they going to come to you for guidance if something starts to go wrong? Those are the kinds of questions I would ask.”
“Even if you’re worried that the pre-teen years might be a little young, it’s better for them to go on social media with your guidance and supervision as opposed to sneaking online behind your back and then you not have that opportunity to help them learn,” she adds.
Be honest with your child
Rather than spying on your child, be upfront with them.
Being sneaky, Douglas says, can actually backfire. In fact, it can drive kids and teens to go underground, meaning they create two profiles: one for the family, and the other for friends. So it’s best to set an honest tone.
This starts with creating two things: your own social media profile, and house rules on social media use, Douglas says.
And once you’ve created your own social media accounts, have your child add you as a friend.
“Be connected to them as their mom or dad but that doesn’t mean you become that annoying and overbearing parent who ‘likes’ every single post or writes comments under everything,” Douglas says. “You’re there in the background, monitoring.”
But when creating rules, don’t rush in and create a long list of rules, Douglas says. Start with a few basic rules, see how things go and then take off from there.
If your child posts something that you aren’t happy about, refrain from overreacting, Douglas says.
“Maybe they think it’s a funny joke and you don’t, or they make a snarky comment that you don’t like, just realize that’s it’s a learning process from them,” she says. “They’re going to have to figure some of this stuff out. So there will be times where they post something that wasn’t a great choice, but that’s why you’re there to help guide them. They will make mistakes.”
While some parents may feel compelled to address their feelings on their child’s social media page or elsewhere online, Douglas advises parents to refrain from doing so.
“There’s nothing more horrible and drama-like than having a blow-by-blow account of a family fight play out on Facebook,” Douglas says. “You definitely want to have this conversation offline for two reasons. First, the entire world doesn’t need to be observing. You don’t need a permanent record of this conversation out there. Also, if you have this conversation face-to-face, you have a greater opportunity to listen and understand what your child was thinking.”
Douglas adds not to go on the attack when you hear the child’s answer. Instead, try to understand their intentions and then express your concerns and explain to them in a calm manner what they did wrong without a judging tone.
Stay on top of trends
New apps, websites and programs that promise secrecy are coming out all the time, so Douglas advises parents to stay on top of such trends.
But since this can be a daunting task, even for the tech-savvy parent, Douglas suggests parents sign up to websites like CommonSenseMedia.org – an online platform run by an independent nonprofit organization that helps kids and parents navigate media and technology – and sign up for their newsletters.
Douglas says websites like these often make it easier for parents to understand the latest in technology, as well as providing additional tips on how to navigate new apps.
Educate your child
While it’s important for parents to educate themselves, it’s also important to make sure their child understands what they are doing online, Douglas says.
For example, if they sign up for a new website and it requires personal information – talk with them and make them understand that putting your personal information out there on the World Wide Web is not a good idea.
“Show kids how easy it is for somebody to know so much about you just by having one basic piece of information about you, like your phone number,” Douglas says. “Let them know that while this information might not seem particularly valuable to them, it could be very valuable to a very unscrupulous person.”
Also discuss that what they put online may hurt their chances of getting a job, or have other repercussions, as well as the subject of cyberbullying, Douglas adds.
Lastly, talk about what they can do if they run into trouble online.
“Kids really need to have the message that they can come to you and talk to you about this stuff and will not be in trouble,” Douglas says. “You don’t want them to feel that they would have to handle it on their own because you want to be there to help guide them.”
Be mindful of privacy
The amount of privacy a child is granted on the web and social media will depend on their age, Douglas says.
So if the child is younger, it’s appropriate for them to have little privacy as they learn how to use the Internet safely with their parents by their side. But as the child ages and becomes a teen, parents should allow for more privacy, she adds.
“Obviously, if it’s an eight-year-old child, you expect to be your child’s ‘friend’ on Facebook because they’re pretty young,” Douglas says. “But a 16-year-old, they might be entitled to a little more privacy. In this case, be the type of online connection they’re going to want to have by not commenting on everything because if not, it might drive them to go underground and create other secret profiles for their friends that you won’t know about.”