Social Media for Parents and Educators

By Carolyn Kottmeyer.

Social media poses two questions for parents and teachers today: How do we as adults use social media wisely, and how do we teach our kids to use social media safely?

Ten years ago, Facebook didn’t exist (launched February 2004). Five years ago, the iPhone was an exciting rumor (1st generation released June 2007). Android phones debuted four years ago (October 2008). The iPad and Android tablets quickly followed. What will technology look like, and how will it be part of our lives, five years from now? Ten years? That may sound like a long way off, and it may be a world away from where we are today… but our 8-year-olds will only be 13 in five years, and becoming adults in 10 years. Time flies!

Technology-based social interaction, social media, has quickly become part of nearly all adults’ lives. What is social media? In a Business Horizons (2010) article, Kaplan and Haenlein define six different types of social media: collaborative projects (for example, Wikipedia), blogs and microblogs (for example, Twitter), content communities (for example, YouTube and DailyMotion), social networking sites (for example, Facebook), virtual game worlds (e.g., World of Warcraft), and virtual social worlds (e.g. Second Life).1

Our kids are growing up in a world that has always had Google (founded 1998). And while things change, the thing that stays the same is that computer-based technology has a LONG memory … like the proverbial elephant, it never forgets. Don’t believe me? Visit the Wayback Machine and check out the 2000 version of the fledgling SENG website … type in The internet doesn’t forget!

How can we safely navigate social media, knowing all this?

Sometimes the old rules are the best. Mom used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” That’s still good advice today. Or the modern version, “Don’t say anything you don’t want to see on the front page of the local paper.” Just remember, these days your local paper is akin to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and several other papers rolled into one: social media “circulation” is world-wide.

When I entered social media, like so many others in my generation, my daughter created my Facebook account for me … so we could stay in touch while she was away at college. She never considered privacy settings, but she did one very smart thing: she “friended” both her mother, and later, her grandmother. This meant that every time she was going to post something, she knew that both Mom and Grammy would be reading it. What an incentive to post only the good things! This is excellent advice for today’s youth, especially high school students who will soon be applying to colleges, and college students who will soon be entering the workforce. Yes, prospective colleges and employers do check your Facebook profile if they can find it! Many employers have policies in place that grant permission for them to access all your posts if you mention who you work for on social media. Talk about visibility!

When my kids were young, our rule was that they could only “instant message” people they knew in real life. This is still good advice in the social media era, and privacy settings can help with this … to a point. If your privacy on any social media is set to “friends only,” only those people you have personally connected with can see your status updates. But the comments you post to your friends’ statuses are another story. All their friends can see your comments.

And if your friends haven’t limited their privacy to “friends only,” that can be the whole wide world. Even a “friends of friends” setting opens visibility to nearly the whole world.

Does this sound frightening? Don’t let it. Social media is an amazing opportunity. For introverts, it allows us to network from the security of our homes. For extroverts, it allows us to become closer friends with the people we meet, whether in school or at conferences around the world. For kids, it allows them to work together and connect in ways we could not imagine when we were young. And for parents and grandparents, it’s a great way to stay connected and share day-to-day triumphs and photographs, whether the kids and grandkids live on the next block or in the next state, home or away.

What else can we do to protect our privacy while still sharing with our friends? Start with your camera or camera-phone… and turn off “geo-location.” Geo-location tags each photo you take with the exact spot where you stood as you took the picture … but does everyone need to know where your kids play soccer, or where you go for vacation? On your social media, make sure that only your friends can see these photos, and that no one can download them. These settings are also available in social media “privacy” settings.

What can we do to teach our children to use social media safely? Model, first and foremost. Let young children know about the positive things you are posting and teach them early about electronic bullying and why it’s never acceptable. Make sure they know they can talk to you about anything, and that you will help them if they are the victim of bullying. For the very youngest kids, before they even consider texting from the phone or playing online, the Piano and Laylee Learning Adventures book offers valuable lessons in online privacy, cyber-bullying, text messaging, copyright and acceptable use.

As our kids get older, consider the wisdom of 16-year-old Audrey Whitby as she joins Perfectly Imperfect Parenting on YouTube to discuss Social Media – How to Teach Responsibility to Kids. Among other great ideas, Whitby suggests that parents know their kids’ passwords for all social media sites, so kids know that parents might check up on their social networking and other online activity at any time.