As part of my series celebrating the newly revised and updated Odd Girl Out, I'm leading parents and girls through some of the twists and turns of girls' social lives online.
With stories of cyberbullying everywhere, parents' anxiety increases with every headline. But parenting can't only be about saying no and laying down the law, or operating from a place of fear. Rules are important, to be sure -- and I'll write more about that soon -- but so is conversation. When parents take the time to ask why their girls love and struggle with social media, they exercise empathy and gain crucial insight into their children.
Asking questions about your daughter's life online also cuts down on the "us vs them" mentality that exists between many girls and their parents. Perceiving a parent only as a digital policeman makes a girl far less likely to confide when she's in trouble, or to listen to why a rule might be in place.
Here are five conversations starters. My advice is to have discussions that come from a place of sincere inquiry. You are taking the time to learn about your daughter's experience and empathize. This is not the moment to discipline or yell "A-ha! I knew it!"
1. What is your favorite thing about [name a form of social media, like texting or Facebook, that you know she loves]? Or: What's your favorite thing to do online or on your phone?
Discussion Tips: Make a genuine effort to see social media through her eyes. Ask her how fast she can text or if she can do it without looking. Invite her to show you her favorite videos. Ask her to take you on a tour of her digital life. The point here is for both of you to connect over the positive aspects of social media, and for her to see that you respect -- or at least tolerate and understand -- her relationship to this very important aspect of her life. If she's not engaging, try this one: If you had to give up your phone or your computer, which one would you pick? Why?
2. Would your friendships be better or worse without technology? Easier or harder?
Discussion Tips: Be careful here. If she's honest and says, yes, my friendships are harder, don't do the I-told-you-dance. Technology isn't going anywhere, no matter how much it taxes her relationships. This is a great opportunity for you to share your own feelings about how social media has changed your own relationships. The answer is never black and white here. Wrestle together with both sides of the question.
3. Do you think people act online the same way they act in real life? Why are people more inclined to be rude or mean online?
Discussion Tips: These are exciting questions because they can open a window into personal stories. If you promise me that you won't come down hard on her for the answer, try asking if she's ever said anything online that she's sorry about. Extra points if you can share your own confession. The point is not to freak out, but to talk frankly about the challenge of learning what belongs online and offline. We can't learn unless we know what we want to change. It won't help any if she feels like she can't talk about her learning process.
4. Technology can bring friends closer together. Can it also make you more insecure in your friendships?
Discussion Tips: This is not a question about bullying or even aggression. It's about what happens when friendships become public and tangible, as they do online, and how we compare ourselves to others by using our social media lives as a barometer for social status and self-worth.
Trying asking if she's ever felt left out of something online. Some ways this could happen include texting someone and not getting a reply, watching someone get lots of texts while you don't, seeing pictures of parties or hang-outs that you were not invited to, or getting fewer Facebook wall posts or birthday messages than someone else.
5. Are there ever misunderstandings caused by technology?
Discussion Tips: This is harder for younger girls, so you may need to prompt a bit. Have you ever thought someone meant to say one thing in a message they wrote, but they really meant something totally different? Or, have you ever thought you were being left out of a situation because of something you saw online, and then realized you weren't? You will feel the symptoms of I-told-you-so-dance coming on. Hold back and put your most empathic foot forward.
What are your conversation starters? Add them in the comments section, and I'll share them next week!
This post is excerpted from the newly revised and updated Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. The new OGO includes two new chapters on girls, social media and parenting in a digital age. Order it now!