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Geoff Johnson: How to steer kids through the social-media labyrinth

Adult vigilance is key when kids are navigating the complex world of social media
Carol Todd holds a photograph of her late daughter Amanda Todd, who was 15 when she died by suicide in 2012, after years of harassment from 22 social media accounts that Crown prosecutors identified as controlled by Dutch national Aydin Coban. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

During the pandemic, as schools went remote and activities were cancelled, COVID variants forced kids and families back indoors. That meant, for many kids, more screen time than ever before

Screen time, especially social-media time, is personal time for most kids, who don’t always welcome adult supervision or intervention.

But according to people like Jim Steyer — founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a leading nonpartisan organization dedicated to providing trustworthy information about social-media uses and abuses — some level of adult participation is needed.

Steyer, an award-winning professor at Stanford University, has tracked trends in media use among tweens and teens since 2015.

Steyer and Keneisha Sinclair-McBride, a clinical psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, have some suggestions about how adults can structure conversations with kids about social-media use.

“What accounts do you have?” may seem too direct and intrusive, but as Sinclair-McBride advises, “The more parents can show that they are genuinely willing to listen, the more their kids will be willing to be open and honest with them.”

Another recommended question is: “What’s your favourite video/photo/meme right now?”

“This gives you a peek into what’s popular in your kid’s world,” Sinclair-McBride said. “Parents can learn more about their kid’s interests and connect on a deeper level about what brings them joy. They can also, if applicable, begin a discussion about potential pitfalls with some content ― is it information or misinformation?”

Moving on from that — and these questions should be spaced out so as to not become some kind of interrogation, it is reasonable to ask: “Who are the friends you talk to the most on social media?”

“It should be more of a conversation,” says Kristene Geering, director of education at Parent Lab, an app that offers parenting support. “In fact, it should be a series of conversations.”

Most parents probably know who their offspring’s friends are, but are there other friends who are just Facebook or TikTok friends? TikTok friends are people a child may have a mutual connection with, and whose accounts they follow, or vice-versa.

Another question to ask, but only when the time feels right, would be: “How do you feel when you use social media?”

This is a “biggie” and brings to mind the recent conviction of Dutch national Aydin Coban for the “sextortion” of British Columbia teenager Amanda Todd.

Todd was 15 when she died by suicide in 2012, after years of harassment from 22 social media accounts that Crown prosecutors identified as controlled by Coban, who was convicted of extortion, possession of child pornography, child luring and criminal harassment.

The Amanda Todd case has prompted calls from lawyers and advocates for more regulation, resources and education in Canada to protect future victims.

“What do you like to post?” is not intrusive but is revealing. Asking a child about the kinds of things he/she likes to post on social media provides a window into how the child likes to present him/herself to others.

“Our kids need to know how to engage with social media in a manner which is healthy and safe. They certainly need to know what to do should they feel unsafe,” says Dr. Khadijah Booth Watkins, associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Booth Watkins advises asking: “Do you know what to do if someone is mistreating you or if you feel unsafe online?”

“Conversations about social media should be ongoing,” Booth Watkins says. “Especially encourage kids to think critically about what they share and to ask themselves about why they want to share it, even if it just means taking a moment to think before hitting ‘post.’ ”

Finally, and only after the conversation has been going well for a while, it may be time to ask something along the lines of: “Have you seen anything on social media that you’d like to talk to me about?,” adding: “I read that some kids have seen stuff about drugs, violence and racism, so I was wondering if you have ever seen things like that?”

A conversation on some topics can be started as easily as asking: “Where did you hear about that?” the next time a child brings up something that sounds outlandish or a little “off.”

Parenting, especially in the age of unfiltered social media, is not easy (not that it ever has been).

As actor/writer Ewan McGregor put it: “The thing about parenting rules is there aren’t any. That’s what makes it so difficult.”

It also means that, difficult as it is, adult vigilance is critical when it comes to steering kids through the social media labyrinth.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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