Social media was a new term when parenting blogger Kay Wyma first noticed the impact the Internet could have on a child.
Wyma’s eldest son wasn’t obsessed with Snapchat or Instagram like many 12-year-olds are today. For him, it was the community he found in online gaming that worried Wyma.
“He wasn’t driven by social media, but (gaming) has the same weird, relationship that’s not real, but it’s kind of real,” Wyma said. “Just like adults, kids want to be accepted and belong. In their world, social media outlets are how they belong.”
Wyma recognizes that her five children are coming of age at a distinct moment in social history, when digital communication and devices are increasingly important in everyday life while parents try to keep up with technology they’ve been forced to adopt.
The problem, she concedes, is that neither she nor her kids know what it will mean when her children are her age and have had a digital presence for most of their lives. Wyma worries most about kids growing up now assigning too much value to their onscreen lives.
“They run the risk where their worth is defined by the number of friends they have. But they’re empty because it’s not a real relationship,” Wyma said. “They’re living it, so they don’t realize what it’s doing to them. They’re in the pot, the water’s boiling, and they don’t know it.”
Author Jacob Silverman worries that if kids growing up on social media aren’t careful, their digital pasts may haunt them in ways they can’t yet imagine. In his new book, “Terms of Service,” Silverman argues that the cost of using social media, especially in terms of privacy, is a variable that may not be fully defined for decades.
Silverman cites many examples of how companies are just beginning to grasp how useful digital information can be. In a 2012 Economist article Silverman cites in his book, Swiss insurance firm Rigi Capital Partners chose not to buy back a client’s life insurance policy because they disbelieved her diagnosis of dementia. After looking at her Facebook page, the Economist reported, RCP determined that she “had a vibrant social life, not dementia.”
This, Silverman argues, may only be a fraction of what today’s kids face once they’ve grown up online, potentially giving companies a lifetime of data.
“Surveillance is a culture in which we live now and we’re all putting ourselves up for display to be watched,” Silverman said. "There’s a lot of education that needs to be done that tells kids, hey, the stuff you’re doing online, no matter how obscure, is only a search away.”
A natural process
Social media can be dangerous for kids, but especially for tweens and teens, say Susan Shaffer and Linda Perlman Gordon, co-authors of the parenting book “How to Connect with Your iTeen.”
Shaffer and Gordon contend that children entering adolescence are at a major disadvantage for understanding the permanence of what they post on the Internet because their frontal lobes — the part of the brain responsible for predicting future consequences for actions in the present — aren’t fully developed.
“You almost have to be their frontal lobe at this age because their sense of the consequences isn’t developed until their mid-twenties,” Shaffer said. “It’s within (parents') authority to make sure kids know that what they do online cannot be undone. You have to make them see that.”
To parents, the undeveloped frontal lobe most likely comes across as a sense of invincibility, Wyma says.
“They think they can do anything and because of the anonymity on a lot of the Internet, they tend not to think about action and reaction,” Wyma said. “I don’t think they know any different because that’s what everybody’s doing.”
Not only are kids that age unable to understand the full ramifications of their online activity, they also haven’t fully developed impulse control, says Gordon, who is also a psychotherapist.
“They really are wired to take risks at that age and that’s natural, because it’s like an evolutionary impulse for them to leave home,” Gordon said. “So what you want is to make sure they are able to take healthy risks in other ways, like building a new skill.”
While it’s unrealistic to forbid kids from using social media at all, Silverman says parents should balance natural experimentation with the risks as best they can.
“It’s normal for our kids to develop their own identity in their own space, whether it’s in their room at home or on Snapchat,” Silverman said. “But there is a concern that kids, from very early age, have a data trail online that may exist forever.”
For parents helping kids navigate best social media practices, Gordon says the first step is to get smart about the technology and consider knowing kids’ passwords to the sites they use.
“This generation of parents does not have the luxury of saying, ‘I’m going to be a Luddite about this,'” Gordon said.
Eliminating social media isn’t just unrealistic, Shaffer and Gordon say — it has its own risks for kids.
“There’s a cultural currency around the Internet and social media and if you don’t speak the language, it’s hard socially,” Gordon said. “You want your child to be fluent in the world they live in."
Shaffer said parents should approach teaching their kids about social media like teaching them how to drive — it’s dangerous, but it’s a necessity.
“You put in digital safeguards and limits just like anything else, like a curfew,” Shaffer said.
More than anything, Wyma said, communication is key to keeping kids safe online. Wyma says she’s seen all of her kids who were old enough to use social media become fixated and, with help, moderate their use.
“You have to walk the road with them. It’s like putting the oxygen mask on yourself first,” Wyma said. “If they’re telling me about their day, I’ll ask them how something made them feel. And if they’re holding their phone I’ll say, ‘How does that make you feel?’”