What is the "right" age for youngsters to begin texting and using social media? As the Mom of two elementary school-aged daughters and an educator on girl bullying, I field this question from parents all of the time. Truly, there is great debate on the subject among professionals, along with a whole lot of hand-wringing by parents. As adults, we are all-too-aware of dangers online -- both from anonymous predators and familiar "frenemies" who use the internet as a weapon. Indeed, social media sites are ripe for cyberbullying, when kids (and adults!) feel liberated to post cruel messages and taunts online without the discomfort of having to say something to a peer's face.
As with most aspects of childrearing, there isn't a simple one-age-fits-all guideline for starting to use social media or texting. From "safety" and "convenience" to the ever-urgent "all the other kids have them" rationales, ultimately, each family will make their own decision about what is "right" for their kids. In this day and age, almost every child will be exposed to technology sooner rather than later.
So, while I do not offer black and white answers to parents as far as "right ages," what I do offer are suggestions for teaching kids how to use technology in ways that reflect family values and respect the dignity of their peers. Here is an example of five "Stop and Think" rules I offer to parents as they are first teaching their kids about netiquette:
1. Choose Your Words Carefully
If you wouldn't say something to a person's face, don't send it via text or the Internet. Technology makes it too easy to say things that are impulsive or unkind. Also, the person reading your message can't see your expressions or hear your tone of voice. Sarcasm and humor often get lost in translation online, so avoid their use. Type carefully as well; avoid using ALL CAPS since they make it look like you are angry or YELLING.
2. The Internet is Not a Weapon
Don't gossip about other people while you are online. Your words can be misinterpreted, manipulated and forwarded without your permission. Plus, it's not fair to talk about people when they can't defend themselves. Likewise, social media sites should never be used to strategically exclude peers who are "on the outs" of a peer group or to "de-friend" a person after a fight.
3. Who is this Message For?
What happens in cyberspace stays in cyberspace -- forever! Though you may think you are sending your private message or photo to a single recipient, keep in mind that it can be cut, pasted and forwarded to an infinite number of people. Never post a photo or message that you wouldn't want "everyone" to be able to view.
Be kind and do not ever use email to say ugly, nasty or mean things about anyone or to anyone. ANYONE. Ever! Stop and ask yourself, "What would Mom (or Dad... feel free to adjust the letters!) think if she read this?" Post accordingly!
5. Take it Slow
In this immediate world of instant messaging and constant contact, you may be tempted to say whatever comes to your mind in a given moment. Don't do it! Slow down and think before you post whatever thought, comeback or reaction is on your mind -- especially if you are feeling an intense emotion like anger or sadness. Wait until you have had a chance to think things through and cool your head before you post a message that can't be taken back.
I also always recommend to parents that from the get-go, they establish a ground rule that they know their child's passwords and can access and review their child's online activity and texts on a regular (read: daily, if necessary!) basis. Yes, older kids will always learn new ways to thwart "intrusions" on their privacy, but YES, it is always a parent's role to establish values, standards, limits, and accountability.
Which brings me to my last piece of counsel for parents: it is important to hold kids accountable for their netiquette and to remind them that their use of technology and social media is a privilege. Parents should make it clear that this privilege can be restricted or revoked at any time, in any way, if the established rules are violated.
No matter how tech-savvy my own children become, I am constantly aware that they are young and that it is up to me to monitor their actions online in the same consistent, diligent way that I ensured their well-being on a playground not so long ago. "I am doing this because I love you," I remind my daughters. "OMG!" I can hear them think.
Signe Whitson is a national educator on bullying and author of Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Cope with Bullying. For more ideas on establishing technology contracts with kids, please visit her Blog. For workshop inquiries, please visit www.signewhitson.com.