Our youngest daughter is 7 years old and recently got her very first iPod touch. She is ecstatic, and I already don't know what she is doing on it.
We have it set up so that she can't access the Internet without getting our permission. And when I say "we" set it up that way, what I mean is that one of our older daughters set it up that way. And once permission is granted, one of the older girls helps her sister figure things out. Just to be clear: it's not that I am incapable of learning how to use these gadgets. (I actually had an iPod nano for a brief period of time until my oldest daughter confiscated it.) It's just that I am always busy either cooking dinner, doing laundry, or any one of the other million things I do each day. And I honestly cannot bring myself to watch my daughter play Temple Run or make fake cupcakes on her iPod. Read to her? Yes. Cook with her? Yes. Cuddle with her? Yes! But watch her cut and style a girl's hair on Toca Boca? I'd rather get a flu shot.
At times, I have struggled with the reality that as my children pass certain milestones, they leave my world a little bit more and enter a new, sometimes scary and uncertain world, one I can't be a constant part of. I've felt it when they started school, and when they began reading books I had never even heard of, or when they slept over at a friend's house or walked downtown with a group of kids after school for the first time. As my kids grow up, they are creating parts of their lives that are separate from me. It's necessary, but I don't always like it. I know I'll feel it when they start driving, and I definitely feel it when they start using the Internet.
Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have changed the way we communicate. The ability to share instantly and indirectly with the masses leaves me with mixed feelings: it can be a lot of fun to post photos and funny happenings, and to see what other people are up to, but it can also be a huge time waster and lead to all sorts of trouble. When people misuse these sites, things can turn nasty very quickly.
When my oldest daughter wanted to join Facebook, I wasn't sure it was the best thing for her. Technically she was old enough, but I didn't know if she was ready to enter the online world. I have seen adults handle social networking poorly, and I tried to imagine what this could look like for junior high schoolers. Here are some guidelines we have established in our home for Facebook, Instagram and other sites:
• Hold off for as long as possible. Legally, a person must be 13 years old to sign on to Facebook. Enforce this guideline, and if your children are of age, assess whether or not they have the maturity necessary to navigate the Facebook world. As with many things, just because a child is old enough to engage in a certain activity doesn't necessarily mean it is beneficial for them.
• Only allow your kids to be friends online with relatives and kids who are good friends in real life. Because Facebook is so good at connecting people, your child will be inundated with friend requests once she signs up, and the potential for her to quickly acquire hundreds of friends, (many of whom are acquaintances or even strangers), is high. Explain to your child that just because she receives a friend request doesn't mean she has to accept it. It is not rude to ignore or decline a request.
• Tell your child not to be Facebook friends with kids who use the site inappropriately, and to "unsubscribe" from friends that use profanity, gossip and bully other kids online. Tell them to choose their friends wisely, in the real world, and in cyberspace.
• Monitor your child's Facebook activity. In addition to having your children's passwords for their computers, phones, etc., check out their newsfeeds from time to time. My husband and I occasionally sit down with our daughters to do this; it allows us to see who they are friends with and what kind of content is being posted by both our children and their friends. And because this has always been part of our agreement, our daughters don't see this as an invasion of their privacy.
• Make sure your child understands that whatever he/she posts online is permanent. Future employers and college admissions officers often check a person's online history, and kids need to be aware that once words or photos are out there, they can be impossible to remove.
• Remind your child that being on Facebook is a privilege. If you have regrets or see that your child is not mature enough to navigate social networking, you can pull the plug, with the understanding that you will try again when they are a little older.
My kids are growing up in a very different world than when I was young. And even though our daughters are way more tech savvy than my husband and I are, we still need to teach them the principles for creating good friendships, communicating in positive, encouraging ways and for staying safe online.
• Becky Baudouin is a freelance writer and speaker. She lives in the Northwest suburbs with her husband, Bernie, and their three daughters.