Part of what children (and adults) love about the internet is that it provides a place to show their friends and family who they are. Whether they're sharing fun photos, creating their own pictures, highlighting favorite songs, or stating their opinions, kids build their identities on the Web.
That's great news when they're trying to connect with family and friends who are scattered across the globe, but it also means that everyone else can see their posts, too. So your son's friends can see his rant about math class, but so can his teachers, grandparents, and future employers.
As a parent, you can help your child understand how to share information online in ways that support her health, development, and safety. And you can give her the tools she needs to make those decisions throughout her life.
Reach only the audience you intend to reach. As a parent, you are probably the person who most often posts about your children. So when you do share images or stories, think about who you hope to share with - and who you do not hope to share with - and choose where to post accordingly. If you're happy to show off your child to people you don't know, then a social media site is a great option. But if you'd just like to share with specific people you love and trust, then set up a personal photo account to share.
Think before you post. What goes online stays online, even after you take it down, so consider what sorts of things you'd be happy to have publicly accessible in five or ten years. That picture of your child taking a bath may seem too cute not to share now, but he - and you - may be less than happy that it's up when he hits elementary school.
When kids want to create things online, choose sites carefully. There are some great websites where preschoolers can create content, like drawings they can submit to be posted. Before your child sends in her work, though, make sure you're clear on whether these sites share personal information about her.
Respect their autonomy, and teach them to do the same for others. Before sharing his embarrassing story about spilling milk on his shirt, ask if he's okay with that - and only post it if he says he is. Then explain that it's important to do the same for others. The combination of asking and explaining why you asked will help him see that you value his wishes, and it will also show him it's important to respect what other people want online.
Help them avoid sharing personal information. If she wants to show off her report card, explain that it's important to block out any identifying information (like her name, home address, etc.). Then, work with her to do so, perhaps by taking a picture of only the grades and class names and posting that.
Make supervision an expectation.
Increase freedom... and responsibility. Tweens can take increasing responsibility for their own safety, and as part of that shift, they will want to create content without direct supervision or constant consultation about what to post where. Work with them to set guidelines like the
Help them use the technology to reach only those they intend to reach. Many sites allow you to create groups where you can email or share information only with members of that group. And for sharing videos, create a channel that only those with the password can access.
Know the sites, and know the laws. Although tweens are ready for more responsibility, they still don't have the cognitive ability to really understand long-term consequences. That's why there are laws in place that prevent websites from collecting information about children under 13, and why many social media sites have a minimum age requirement.
Remember that teens are separating from their parents, connecting with friends, and figuring out who they are. These processes will play out online, too. That's okay. Just make sure they know you are there for them if and when they have questions and concerns.
Talk about what online "privacy" really means. Remind teens that nothing online is truly private. Are they looking for a summer job? Their employer can probably see that photo from last week's dance party - not to mention grandpa, and their math teacher. Encourage them to consider who can see things before they decide what to post.
Ask them to show you how to use their favorite social media site. This will give you a window into their world and let them demonstrate their mastery, which will help build trust between you.
This guide was created by Ask the Mediatrician®, a service of the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Boston Children's Hospital. A non-profit research center, CMCH is dedicated to understanding and responding to the effects of media - tv, movies, music, video games, cell phones and the internet - on the physical, mental and social health through research, translation and education. If you have a question about the research behind these guides, go to www.cmch.tv or if you have a question about media and child's health, go ahead and ask at it www.askthemediatrician.org. The work of CMCH is made possible by Comcast and other generous donors.