Today’s children will share much of their lives online as they grow up. And, in many cases, parents will get them off to an early start with fawning social media posts. From there, the progressions tends to go to sharing information on school website to having access to a smartphone to skirting age requirements to sign up for popular chat and social apps to doing a bunch of stuff no one really wants to know or think about. But parents have to think about safety online even if they struggle somewhat to understand what that means. The “How to Share Information” conversation, a modern ancillary to the “birds and bees” talk, needs to happen earlier and more often than most parents realize according to Antigone Davis, Head of Global Safety for Facebook.
“One of the things we know from the research is that engaging early is really important,” Davis says. “When you try to engage by the time your child is 13, it gets harder.”
“That’s when your child starts to develop their own identity and starts to look outside the family for figuring out who they are,” Davis says. That doesn’t bode well for following directions.
And this isn’t supposition on Davis’s part or the part of the company that employs her. Facebook has built partnerships with major research and policy organizations to look specifically at parent and child relationships as they relate to online safety. These organizations include the National PTA, the Family Online Safety Institute, the Center on Media and Child Health, and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Their insights are the backbone for advice found on the Facebook Parents Portal.
Of the suggestions found there, one of the most pertinent is that opportunities to talk about data safety often come when playing online games with kids. “There’s an opportunity there for the parents even before the age of 13,” Davis says. “When they’re playing games, they can find out from the child what they really like about online technology, and what it is that they’re maybe less sure about, and seize those moments.”
Other opportunities come when a child is given a new device, be it a cell phone or child’s tablet. Parents can take the time to learn about the new tech side by side with their kid, exploring apps and talking about setting limits. There’s no real trick to it, according to Davis. The technology essentially banks on parenting skills most already have.
“Sometimes parents may feel they don’t have the knowledge to engage,” says Davis. “When children are young we talk to them about looking both ways to cross the street. The same kinds of parenting skills that apply offline apply online. It’s important for parents to hold onto their confidence.”
Parents know their children best, so they should also know what will work for their kid when setting boundaries around the internet and hardware that access it. Davis explains that a kid with a history of doing well with clearly established rules will benefit from clear rules when it comes to online safety. But a child who does better with negotiation might benefit more from developing a contract about what those rules are. It really depends on the parent’s experience.
Being a confident parent in regards to both online and offline safety is a good parallel for children who increasingly see no boundary between online and offline lives. “This is where kids can teach us. Kids don’t necessarily separate their online and offline lives, particularly kids old enough to be on social media,” Davis notes. “There’s a real opportunity to talk to them about how rules online are the same rules that apply offline in how you treat somebody and engage.”
In addition to telling, parents should also show. The established rules should be as much for the parents as they are for the kid. If devices are turned off at 9 p.m., everyone’s devices are turned off at 9 p.m. If a parent expects a child to be respectful, cautious, and measured online, then he should show those qualities too, both in how they talk about social media and how they talk on social media.
“I think it’s very important to be a good role model,” Davis says. “That seems obvious, but sometimes parents forget that.”