I have something to say about children using Facebook and it’s going to finger-point at a lot of parents. I think that’s okay, because if parents of children younger than 13 are allowing their son or daughter to open an account and violate the Terms of Service that Facebook has in place, then let’s just have an honest discussion about that. It’s something that, in my position as a counselor and disciplinarian in a middle school, I cannot escape. The issues about what is happening between students online with unsupervised access comes to my attention on a weekly basis and they are filled with vitriol and jealousy and inappropriateness for an 11-year old child. Parents have got to step back into the lives of their children and, yes, even be the bad guy sometimes. Gather ’round and lean in close, parents: it’s okay for you to be the bad guy once in a while, you know? You’re the parent. It’s totally your job.
The scenarios surrounding bad social media behavior are all the same: someone says something mean to another child on Facebook and the drama and hurt feelings and, on occasion, physical fights occur. The second most common scenario is that a child hacks into the account of another child and posts as them in order to embarrass or humiliate them. More recently, this has been an issue for children under the age of 13 and, naturally, the first thought that comes to my mind is “They are violating the Terms of Service.” and my second thought is “Who is monitoring these kids online?” My final thought is “What are we really teaching children when we do this?”
A lot of parents with children younger than 13 are allowing their child to have a Facebook account to stay in touch, virtually, with family members who live far away. However, not long after creating the profile, their friends will find them. This is where the trouble begins. Developmentally, children ages 10-12 are doing some magical things. I get to witness this in my job every day. They are finding out who they are and are beginning to realize what’s important to them and their beliefs. They learn about friendship and how to trust and use discernment among their friends. This is hard enough to do at their age without the interference of social media. At 11 years of age many young boys and girls are still learning how to be social in real life. I feel sorry for those who are merely learning social etiquette behind the protection of their computer screens and smart phones. The trust factor is high at this age which is also why the hurt feelings factor stings so much when they are rejected or ostracized. When I was 11 I was growing taller and reached 5’8 and could barely take the “Bean Pole” and “Thunder Thighs” nicknames that the boys called me. What would I have done had they also taken to social media to tease me about that?
One of the worst violations I see regularly at my job is when children are being mean and throwing insults and hate at one another while they’re online. That’s not even the worst part. When I counsel these students and suggest that they “un-friend” the perpetrator they act like I’ve told them to please grab a saw and hack off both of their arms. This proves to me over and over that they are lacking confidence or self-esteem and that they have an inability to draw boundaries around their online relationships. Maybe it’s also that they love the drama, but one girl told me if she un-friended someone then she wouldn’t be able to see what the other girl says about her. I worry that our children aren’t learning to stand up for themselves and would rather engage in social meanness rather than commit social media suicide.
On the parent side I witness all sorts of ethics and beliefs that cause me to pause. One mom I know was recently surprised at what her 12-year old daughter’s friends were writing on Facebook but she was grateful that she was a strict parent who monitored it. I kind of pushed on that a little with her and reminded her that she was helping to break the Terms of Service by allowing her daughter to have it. Another mom said she didn’t care about breaking the rules because that’s how her daughter stays in touch with her father (who is no longer married to the mom). I asked her if that’s why she let her child have it. “No, I didn’t let her have it. My ex-husband did because she whined and cried about it so much that he just gave in. Now, they barely use it and just talk on the phone.”
Children will, sometimes, just create the account on their own and that’s a whole other bag of worms that I have to tackle at work. On the chance that I have a captive audience of students I share with them what our district policies are on this subject:
1. Make sure you are 13 if you’re on Facebook.
2. Protect and share your passwords with your parents. Change them often and don’t use simple, easy-to-figure out passwords that your friends can guess.
3. Blur or morph photos. Take out identifiable features like your school name or logo. Kids are using Instagram a lot now as well as Muzy, a Pinterest-like site has a teen spirit smell all over it.
4. Think before you click. What you post stays online forever and your future bosses will be checking you out. The law is also catching up to technology and these things can legally be used against you.
5. Disruptions to the learning environment have actionable consequences at school. Use good “netiquette”. If issues from what you post online come into the school setting and it has a nexus to the school environment thus altering and disrupting it, then school personnel may discipline for it even if it’s done at home or on a personal smart phone. Kids think they’re protected because it’s “on their own time”, but when it carries over into the school they may be in bigger trouble than they thought.
I’m pleading with you parents of young children and even those with 13-year olds who are far too immature in their development to use it wisely: stop helping your child cheat the system. If you show children that you don’t have to follow the rules set by social media service officials then you have to own to the realization that it may have disastrous consequences later. These are precious developmental stages that confuse children and weaken their ability to be held accountable on other issues. If not for that, then do it for me. Help make my job of educating children easier by allowing me to devote time to helping them survive their teenage years. Assist me in guiding them to make emotionally appropriate decisions that pressure them while at school. Support me in clearing the time spent on social media issues in my office to make room for the academic ones that I’m supposed to help with while they’re learning. The educators in your kids’ schools will thank you.
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