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Living online

When it comes to social media, the safest option is to teach your children well

  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Navigating the waters of social media with tweens.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Navigating the waters of social media with tweens.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Navigating the waters of social media with tweens.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Navigating the waters of social media with tweens.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Navigating the waters of social media with tweens.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Navigating the waters of social media with tweens.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Navigating the waters of social media with tweens.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Navigating the waters of social media with tweens.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Navigating the waters of social media with tweens.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Navigating the waters of social media with tweens.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Navigating the waters of social media with tweens.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Navigating the waters of social media with tweens.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Navigating the waters of social media with tweens.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Navigating the waters of social media with tweens. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

We’ll forgive you a little melodrama, parents of tweens. After all, if you’re living with a kid (or kids!) between the ages of 9 and 12, you know that EVERYTHING IS A BIG DEAL!!!!!

But if you’ve been losing sleep over social media, it’s possible that your fears are overblown. It’s possible – just possible – that the internet is not going to swallow your child whole and spit out the bones in that pile of cast-off clothes and ripped out journal pages she refuses to pick up.

We talked with Jeff Utecht
(jeffutecht.com), a social media expert who lectures all over the country, and Kim Tufts, a middle school technology teacher and adjunct professor at Southern New Hampshire University and Plymouth State University, about the digital world kids inhabit today. And OMG, people! It might not be as bad as we thought! There are risks, to be sure, but it’s all in how you deal with them.

What do you see as the biggest dangers/problems facing tweens who use social media?

Utecht: Not sure there is a problem. Social media is here to stay. It’s not going away, we’re not going back to the “good ole days” before we had it. So let’s start off with understanding it is our reality. If we see using social media as a social norm today . . . then we need to look for ways to engage with it in such a way that makes it powerful to use and stop thinking of it as a problem. What I think everyone needs to focus on when it comes to social media is to step back and reflect on how much time you are actively creating content versus passively consuming content.

Tufts: I am always hesitant to combine the two words dangers and social media. But there are many issues that tweens could face with social media use such as posting private information, inappropriate pictures of themselves or others, friending strangers or bullying others. Kids today are walking around with powerful computers in their pockets that have the ability to connect instantly to anyone or any website they choose. It has been often coined as the “Wild, Wild West.”

What are some things parents can do to ensure their kids’ safety on social media networks?

Utecht: Quit thinking they need protecting and help show them how to engage with the media in a social way. The only way we are going to help keep students safe is by teaching them – in the space – how to be safe. You can tell a child to look both ways before crossing the street a hundred times, but if you do not take them to a crosswalk and practice it with them while holding their hand, you’re doing little teaching. This is what most schools and parents do with students when it comes to social media. They say “be safe” or “don’t share” but they don’t take them into the social media spaces and show them what that actually means. This is why I believe every student needs to have a public facing website and why social networks like Facebook should be unblocked in schools. Only by going into these spaces with kids are we ever going to be able to teach them what safe really is.

Tufts: What I think is most important to discuss is that what they put on the internet stays there and they can’t get it back. One of the biggest things a parent could do to make sure their child is safe on social media networks is to have their child log into their account with the parent and go over the privacy settings with them. Another way is to friend their child on those sites. By being a friend or follower of their child, they can monitor any new additions to their friend list and have discussions with their child about who these people might be. It is important to keep an open dialogue with their children without sounding accusatory or mistrustful. Raising children is difficult enough, and adding social media has raised the stakes.

What are some key messages you try to get out to kids?

Utecht: We don’t give students enough credit. When it comes to social media they are way smarter than we give them credit for. My message to tweens and teens: “Don’t be stupid.” They know, they live in these spaces. After we get that out of the way we focus on some of the amazing things they can do in these social spaces that have positive impacts on the world. Like a class of seventh-graders at my last school who started a Facebook group that led to the banning of plastic bags at a local grocery store. Or how the Egyptian people overthrew their government using social media. Let’s stop focusing on the negative side of these tools and start teaching the amazing power they have to change the world around us. Let’s teach students to be smart and be active in social spaces.

Tufts: In my middle school classes I use a website called Commonsense Media. This is a wealth of information not only for educators, but also parents about how to deal with not only social media issues, but also television show ratings, video games and really any type of media that is trending currently. One of my favorite messages I like to begin with is the lesson about their digital footprint. I even use this lesson with my graduate students and they are really surprised by how much personal information they have put online about themselves over their lifetime. I show a video to them called Digital Dossier, which tracks the digital life of a baby through his death.

We hear a lot about online bullying these days. Have you personally witnessed it or heard of it happening?

Utecht: Yes, it happens. Schools block Facebook and think that solves the issue when we all know that most of this bullying happens at home anyway. Blocking social media at school doesn’t help. In fact, at my last school when we unblocked Facebook we saw a decline in online bullying because students knew the teachers were in the space as well. Again, are we actively teaching students in social spaces what it means to be a good social citizen? We talk about bullying and being a good friend in the context of face to face interactions and the playground. How many schools take those same conversations and are applying them to online spaces?

Tufts: Online bullying is something that happens every day and it is so important for it to be addressed as soon as it starts. As a middle school teacher, it is all too prevalent. A lot of what happens is kids will begin to bother each other on a Facebook page or through text messaging. This overflows into school because now that child who is being picked on does not want to come to school, begins to have stomach issues or withdraws from friends. We have a wonderful resource officer at our school who works with those students to bring a resolution to the issues. Sometimes the school has to step in and figure out a way to stop what is happening because it is interfering with that child’s education. I am not sure if we can stop it from happening 100 percent, but hopefully through more education, we can diminish the instances at our school.

Are some social media outlets safer or more problematic than others?

Utecht: Nope. The web is the web, and it’s public. Learning to live in public is something we as a society are struggling with right now. We’ll sort it out. Let’s remember that social media has only been around for about 10 years. We are all tweens trying to figure it out together and where the lines are for using it for good and bad.

Tufts: I can’t say one is more problematic than another because at any time one of them can be used for malice. It is only through the situation happening (that we can) have a discussion about what happened and what could be done to prevent it from happening in the future. It is all about relationships with your students and children. Keeping communication open is my best advice.

Facebook sets an age limit of 13, which many people disregard by using a fake birth date. What do you think is an appropriate age to let kids use Facebook, Twitter, etc.?

Utecht: These age limits have proven not to work over and over again. Sites have to set them due to laws in the United States. Laws that are old and out of date. But laws also state that students can sign up for these sites if they have parent permission or for educational reasons. Nobody reads that part of the law, and it’s easier for sites to just say “Nobody under 13” than to try and figure out how to get parent permission. So that’s what they do so they don’t get sued. Facebook has even told us there are about 7.5 million kids in the United States alone. So the law doesn’t work and some parents think it’s okay. What’s an appropriate age? When a parent deems a student mature enough to handle the responsibilities of using the account for good rather than bad.

Tufts: When I teach digital citizenship to my students as young as sixth grade, I ask how many of them have a facebook account, knowing that they are only 10 and 11 years old. Almost 90 percent of them raise their hands. They just enter in a different birth date which overrides the settings for the site. They are using the media and I think it is important to educate them before they find themselves in a situation they did not prepare for. Middle school students should be able to use these sites with a gradual release of responsibility. Many of the social media sites today can be used in education as a tool for learning, so we can begin to use them as young as fourth or fifth grade. Some schools use blogs with their students as young as kindergarten with parental permission. It is all about being informed as a parent and knowing what your kids are doing.

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