Recently I have been involved in developing learning objects which offer practical advice on how students can manage their digital footprint . The resources encourage students to build a positive online identity (known as ‘brand ‘me’). Such a positive presence typically contains artifacts and interactions that tell a personal story but which, publicly at least, don’t include debaucherous highlights for all the world to see.
 My interest in social media and how children/students use it is not solely a professional one. Over the last two or three years we have had a turbulent relationship with the web and social media in our own home, but it finally appears that we have reached a point of online equilibrium. Many friends and colleagues have had the routine updates of this conscious journey and asked that I share what has been learnt. I won’t share every detail – but here are some things that we learned that helped us:

  • There is really no point banning children’s web access; this is a sure way to create a battleground and is really unnecessary. No matter how tempting it seems, it will create a form of isolation from friends. Social media has replaced phone communication, so any threats of withdrawal have to be seen in this light. Ultimately we’re going to have to self regulate, so denying access is not really helping to build those self-management skills.
  • Start early – any pre-teen can understand that ‘saying anything online is like standing in the town square and shouting at the top of your voice!’
  • The idea that the web is educational and children need access for homework is fine, but any belief that each child should have total control over web-enabled devices is misplaced. Shared devices work just as well, and if anything they encourage file discipline and sound data management. Too many ‘owned’ devices create territorial behaviours; sharing creates tolerance. It also acts as a further safeguard in making sure information coming in and out is not locked away.
  • Try to talk about web use as a routine point, and encourage honesty. With a hint of comedy we routinely ask ‘what’s happened in social media land today?’ 🙂 Who said what to whom? Who is having a hard time? etc. Web safety sites only seem to encourage us to only discuss undesirable behavior (advising us to ‘report any weirdos’, ‘press the red button’ if you want to report content etc.), but such responses are largely not appropriate for the situations that children need to navigate. Through pro-active discussion children can reach more informed positions about what they see and how they interact. They need to know how to respond to peers posting walls of selfies and encouraging others to vote out the ugliest (awful isn’t it?), and not just the situations of ‘stranger danger’ that adults often conceive as being the biggest issue. .
  • Look out for physical symptoms of anxiety, which might be linked to social media use. These devices allow us to be ‘always on’ and alert; for teens/pre-teens this can mean no down time.  When always connected, a sense that something may be missed never goes away; in itself this creates stress. Until children have the wherewithal to make positive choices and understand that they do not need to be on call, this facility is very damaging.
    • Discuss why down time is important (Eating dinner with a child who has a vibrating smartphone in their pocket is like trying to eat dinner while fifty people throw snowballs at your window and heckle);
    • Show that choosing when to communicate is empowering and not weak;
    • Constructively challenge the need to ‘hear’ all communications (in the same way that all crisps in the house do not need to be consumed, moderation is good);
    • Discuss which devices and features can help manage the noise (there are phones that bridge the ‘first phone’ to a super smart phone).
  • Encourage children to filter unwanted drivel. 20-second clips of pointless stuff on Snapchat may be OK between close friends (developmental, even), but trying to keep up with everyone’s everyday is meaningless. 100 friends, posting two twenty second clips per day is a whole lot of lost time.
  • Measure the benefit of real activities explicitly against the benefits of ‘spent’ online time. Discuss the opportunity-cost of online activities. By example, after cycling ten miles on a sunny day and fitting in a nice lunch, make a comparison to how many YouTube videos, Snap Chat communications or Instagram pictures might have been otherwise chewed through– then recognize which is better!
  • Don’t be the fun police – some time watching YouTube and flicking through content is just fine. Watching ‘How animal’s eat their food’ for the twentieth time can be mildly amusing.
  • Recognise different behaviours in others (and discuss). Did you notice how that person spent their entire visit texting others? Is that OK?  Did you notice how filming a concert through a phone device caused a disconnect and created a whole load of footage never to be watched again?
  • Practice (and practise) being fully present. It’s hard to pedal moderate online approaches unless we do it ourselves!
  • Don’t resign to the idea that kids are all consumed by gadgetry and apps. There is balance to be found.
  • Recognise that all of the variables in online usage are changing (child’s age, peer behavior, the tools themselves) and so the search for a balanced online pattern is going to be ongoing and shifting.

This post was co-produced with my own children (thank you). What you have here is our shared experience. Back to my professional interest, I believe there is a need for much more research about how children and young people can learn to become digitally resilient and capable; I’m sure this touches on parenting, formal education, confidence, self-esteem and self-efficacy. More research and better advice (particularly more realistic advice) would, I’m sure help parents who are permanently exasperated and who feel unable to deal with this issue.