Drugs, unprotected sex, drinking, bullying, smoking -- the list of parental worries often seems endless. And just when you think you have all the potential problem areas covered, your child or teen suddenly seems "addicted" to Facebook and other online social media sites. Is that even possible?
According to psychologist Kimberly S. Young, Ph.D. of the Center for Online Addiction, teen Internet addiction is becoming a growing problem. While there aren't any hard numbers to indicate just how many teenagers are becoming addicted to the Internet, Young estimates that five to 10 percent of Internet surfers suffer from some degree of Internet addiction.
Additionally, a recent Canadian study involving more than 5,000 children and teenagers revealed that 70 percent of parents know little or nothing about their kids' online activities. The study, which was conducted by the Ottawa, Ontario-based Media Awareness Network, also found that 70 percent of 13- and 14-year-olds admit to visiting private and adults-only chatrooms. What's more, most of these teenagers freely admitted that they were breaking family rules by visiting these chatrooms.
Another study from York University in Canada claims that Facebook users are "insecure, narcissistic, and have low self-esteem." So, does your child's Facebook habit mean you're a bad parent? No. But it does mean you have to establish some new rules and household routines. Here are a few things to consider:
1) Facebook Shouldn't Become a Surrogate For Real Friendships and Activities
Everyone needs face time with other people, not just screen time. Physical presence with others promotes deeper connection, and all people need to be touched, hugged and attended to. Therefore, just as you likely have rules about TV time and phone time, you also need a rule about Internet time.
Of course, kids today need to be online for school projects and learning opportunities. The problem is when parents automatically assume their children are online for educational purposes and don't question the child's real Internet use. Realize that it's easy to look busy at the computer, as if serious learning were taking place (just think how often you "look busy" at work when the boss walks by). That's why parents need to take a sincere interest in what their kids are doing online, beyond installing Internet monitoring software.
This is about talking with your kids, learning about their school projects and friends, and asking them thought-provoking questions about their day. For example, rather than simply asking, "How was your day at school?" (which typically elicits the response, "Fine"), ask something like, "What was your favorite part of today?" or, "What three new things did you learn today?" Such questions prompt more than a one-word answer and help you build connection with your child.
2) Help Your Child Uncover His or Her Passion
Everyone needs a purpose in life; your children are no different. If you want your children to limit their Facebook time (or time on other social media sites), you have to help them find an alternative. Simply saying, "Don't go on Facebook so much," won't prompt any change in behavior, as your children won't have any other activity to do that engages them. Therefore, as you start talking with your child more, probe to uncover his or her likes and dislikes.
There are so many things kids can get involved in these days, from sports to dance to groups of specialized interests. There are also numerous volunteer options, such as with a local humane society, senior center, library, museum or non-profit organization. Essentially, no matter what interests your child, chances are there's some way for your child to put that interest to good use.
When kids have a passion for something, Facebook and other social media sites will no longer seem important. Rather, they'll have a bigger desire to fuel their passion. And if their passion is something you or another sibling or friend can get involved in, too, that will make the transition to the new activity even easier.
3) Teach Your Children How to Use Facebook
One of the challenges with social networking sites is that they subtly teach children to commoditize relationships. In a child's mind, if someone has 4,000 Facebook friends and the child only has 400, it means that the other person is more valued. That's the kind of lazy logic that creeps into many kids' thinking.
To combat this type of thinking, ask your kids, "How many of your Facebook friends actually contribute to your life? How do these friends add value to you? What do you know about these people other than what they post on Facebook?"
Additionally, teach your children how to use Facebook responsibly. For kids, Facebook is a way to talk about homework and common interests with peers, and a way to keep extended family updated about daily happenings. For example, if your child gets the lead in the school play, makes the varsity team or gets all As, that's information worth posting on Facebook, as it eliminates the need to call and tell everyone the good news.
However, if your child is friending people they don't know, that's when Facebook becomes dangerous and opens the door to cyber-bullying, bad influences, and unforeseen dangers. Help your child realize that for their purposes, Facebook is not for meeting strangers around the world. They need to keep their network to known friends and family only.
4) Take a Proactive Approach to Facebook
Remember that Facebook can become catnip for attention-starved kids. Sadly, there are some kids who are basically raising themselves. They have no structure, no discipline and no one to give them the healthy attention every child craves and needs. Facebook can feed into this hunger for attention by incentivizing kids to "act out," post provocative pictures of themselves, or post shocking statements that can boomerang back on them and hurt their future.
Therefore, even if you're not on Facebook or think it's nothing more than a dumb waste of time, you can't ignore Facebook or social media any longer. Your kids are using it whether you approve or not. That's why you have to educate yourself about social media and be proactive in terms of how your children use Facebook. By getting involved in all aspects of your child's life, including their cyber life, you can teach them how to use Facebook responsibly and instill in them a true passion worth pursuing.