Social Media and kids’ virtual connection with each other dropped into my life the day before my 49th birthday when my children were between the ages of 11 and 17. When it arrived, it brought with it harried, unorganized, fear-based conversations with our kids about the dangers lurking in this new uncharted territory we knew nothing about; social media. We did our best to understand this new internet based meeting-ground for people – for our kids, but the truth is, we were fudging our way through it. It was clear that our kids were five steps ahead of us and we were being left in the dust.
As parents, we knew we had two choices,
1. Make the inevitable parenting decisions out of fear and forbid our kids access to social media, restrict their phone use, lay down rigid rules, (that they would most certainly figure a way around) and pretend they wouldn’t set up their own accounts without our knowledge and guidance.
2. Or become educated by asking our kids to help us understand this new medium so we could make the journey together.
Now fast forward a few years and cell phone use and sexting is now of major concern for parents raising kids in the 21st century. If we thought social media was difficult to navigate, sexting is a landmine of misunderstanding, fear, anxiety, consequence, and judgment.
Thankfully this infographic ‘Cracking the sexting code’ arrived in my inbox a month ago from Amy Williams, a freelance journalist and mother of two teenagers, who is part of a parent advocacy group in southern California that helps parents struggling with raising troubled teenagers.
This offers a simple way for parents to learn more about this new phenomenon. The number one nugget of advice I can offer you – parent to parent – is to get educated. Education is what helps people make informed, thoughtful decisions instead of reactive decisions based on fear and worst case scenarios, because I am here to tell you, that all teens who have access to technology have the opportunity to “sext” and not all will. Please don’t decide that you will make sure that your child is not part of these statistics and create an environment of control and shame. As a parent, you will be more effective if you have your wits about you and you know the facts about sexting. Trying to talk to your kids about sexting without all the facts and a large dose of confidence is going to back fire.
In addition to understanding how technology plays a part in your children’s social development, there are other steps you can take to offer supportive guidance through this time of growth and discovery for your kids.
Tip 1: It’s more important that you stay connected to your kids during this time of mystery and confusion than it is for you to lay down some rigid rule about sexting that you will never be able to respectfully enforce and may drive your kids away from you and shut down the lines of communication. Kids who are talking with their parents are less at risk than kids who are so disconnected from their parents that they are forced to navigate this tricky territory on their own or with a friend who knows the same or less than they do about sexting. Kids are being pressured to sext, so watch that your conversations are open and non-judgmental. Listen and you will learn valuable information about how your child is assessing this adolescent transition with a wireless device.
Tip 2: Set up policies and guidelines that respect everyone involved. In other words, you may have to move just right of the center line and your kids might have to move just left of the center line. If you don’t set up guidelines together, it’s a sure bet that you will be excluded from their exploration, their thoughts and their decisions.
Tip 3: Start the conversation when they are young (and I mean really young.) Sexting is a part of the culture and I assure you that whether you want to believe it or not a first grader who has an older brother or sister is going to start hearing about sexting long before they understand the significance of it. By bringing sexting out into the light, making it a family conversation and making it safe for your kids to share long before they are introduced to sexting, you stand a far better chance of empowering your kids with solid, factual information and the confidence that they
can come to you with questions or concerns.
Tip 4: Keep the conversation going. Talking about sexuality, relationships, intimacy and sexting is a conversation best had as routinely as you talk about the weather or what you are eating for dinner. The more often you talk about this sensitive subject, the more confidence you will have talking about it openly and honestly and the more confidence your kids will have asking questions, challenging ideas and sharing. If your child “sexts” and has regret or experiences negative consequences, you want your child to turn to you for support. You don’t want your child to decide he/she knows how you feel and doesn’t want to disappoint you or be shamed for his/her mistake. This leads to lying and living with feelings that can perpetuate a negative self-image.
So, before you listen to your friends, read the science. Well-meaning friends are just that, well-meaning, but they aren’t raising your kids. Do your homework (you want your kids to do theirs right?) and stay updated with the latest research (not the scare tactics of an alarmist parent) and grow with the times. I guarantee that within a year or two, there will be another potentially dangerous application that our kids will be required to navigate and if you have already established yourself as a reliable and reasonable resource, your kids are bound to include you in the conversation and together you can establish guidelines for chartering the stormy waters.