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Why it’s a mistake to ban social media — and what to do instead

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If you had a magic wand, would you ban your child from social media for as long as possible? If you said yes, you’re not alone. Glennon Doyle, author of “Love Warrior” and a mom of three, recently tweeted that her kids aren’t allowed on social media. And I’ve been hearing more about this approach as I work with schools across the country as the founder of the Social Institute, which promotes the positive use of social platforms. The effects of screen time and the risks associated with social media, whether bullying or meeting strangers, are serious enough for some parents to forbid it outright.

I understand that parents know their kids best and want the best for their kids. But beware of making social media a forbidden fruit. Here’s why it’s a bad idea to ban it — and what to do instead.

Kids will always be one step ahead

I speak with thousands of students across the country about social media, and they describe how ahead of the game they are compared with parents:

  • “All my friends talk about Fortnite at our school lunch table, but my parents don’t know much about the game.”
  • “My sister is up to a 350-day Snap streak, and my dad is clueless about why that’s cool.”
  • “My mom gave me permission to use Instagram, but she has no idea about my finsta.” (A finsta is a second Instagram account teens use to hide from parents and share more honest photos and captions.)
  • “My parents regularly search my phone, but they don’t know about my decoy app.” (Kids download “decoy apps” like Calculator% and Audio Manager, neither of which calculates or controls volume. After entering a code, kids can hide their photos and videos, make secret calls and message people — all within the app.)
  • “I created an Instagram account, and my mom has no idea. Otherwise, she would freak out.” (While most platforms require users to be at least 13 years old to create an account, anyone who wants to open an account needs only two things: Internet access and an email address.)

The lesson? Kids will never stop migrating to new apps that are foreign to parents. Banning social media just isn’t realistic.

There’s a positive side to social media

Headlines often focus on the pitfalls of social media, so benefits such as building relationships with friends and future employers, supporting causes, and joining movements are easy to overlook. Not only can students use social media to fuel their success, but they will be increasingly expected to do so. According to a 2017 study by CareerBuilder with more than 2,300 hiring managers, more than half won’t interview someone they can’t find online.

By teaching kids to use social media in a healthy way, parents can help them take charge of their online reputation and follow positive role models who can push them toward their goals.

Shared standards can strengthen a family

Unlike rules, which restrict negative behaviors, standards encourage positive behaviors and open, trusting relationships. Living up to high standards takes practice, and when a group of people — a family — agrees to live by the same standards, they keep each other accountable.

Take screen time. Adults often complain that teens look at their devices too much. In reality, according to a 2017 study by Common Sense Media, adults spend 26 minutes longer each day “with screen media” than children ages 8-18 (and more than 80 percent of it is “devoted to personal screen media”). Kids can’t be what they can’t see.

Defining your family’s social standards is the first step toward using social media positively. (Kids will notice if you don’t follow the same practices they’ve agreed to.) Help one another by agreeing on and signing a family social standards agreement. That’s right, Mom and Dad sign, too.

  • What will you and your family prioritize before turning on Netflix?
  • When will everyone put their screens away? After 8 p.m.? When having a conversation? When driving (that means you, parents)?
  • How often will you update your passwords?
  • What are your standards for posting? Will you agree to not post embarrassing or inappropriate photos/videos of each other or other people?

How to help

These days, even elementary kids can join apps like YouTube Kids or Facebook Kids Messenger or play Fortnite (on multiplayer mode). Apps and multiplayer games are becoming a part of their childhood. And children of different ages need different amounts — and types — of guidance. With younger kids, you might use tools like Net Nanny or Bark to monitor their every move. But all kids benefit far more from a two-way conversation because it promotes an atmosphere of openness and trust.

When you huddle, discuss the “do’s” of social media, not just the “don’ts.” Replace “don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see” with “post what represents your character and values.”

Let’s empower our kids to fuel their potential by using social media. Yes, banning social media altogether would be easier — for you. Your child, however, would miss out.

Laura Tierney is founder of the Social Institute, which helps teach tweens and teens to use social media and technology in beneficial, positive ways.

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More reading:

How to not melt the couch, and other life skills to teach your kids this summer

Why I limited my busy tween’s social life

The emotional roller coaster of trying to bond with your kids over a video game

How I’m making sure my daughter doesn’t see herself through the haze of an Instagram filter