As someone who grew up in the early 90’s, I wasn’t really spoiled for choice when it came to the internet. I remember very clearly getting our first family computer around the mid 90’s, a cumbersome machine, that took up a huge area in the family living room. Internet was dial up, and connected to the home phone, so good luck trying to get online when your mom was talking to her friends! Even when you did eventually connect to the internet, there wasn’t an awful lot to do! I remember the most exciting “social media” we had was MSN messenger, and that was always closely monitored by parents. We were told of the dangers of this new online world, a place filled with chat rooms and people pretending to be someone they weren’t, but the risk seemed low given the small amount of time we were allowed to spend on the internet and the fact that there really wasn’t a lot to “explore” at that time.
Now that I am raising kids of my own, one a pre-teen, I am having a hard time keeping up with the apps and social media platforms that seem way too accessible for kids of all ages. One app that has caught my attention over the last 6 months is Tik Tok. This social media platform was created to share videos of people singing and dancing and creating entertaining content from all over the world. It has been praised as a great way to share creativity, but there is a dark side to this platform that we need to be aware of as parents. There have been concerns regarding the sharing of personal information of kids under the age of 13, dangerous challenges that have gotten out of hand and most concerning of all, the ability for adults to communicate with children who are naïve and don’t stop to question who they are talking to.
During this time of “lock down” my preteen (like many other kids) has been spending much more time on her tablet, part of that is for school work and keeping in contact with her friends, as well as watching NetFlix and Disney+. In the last few months, she had mentioned Tik Tok to me a few times, and said how some of her friends were using it and enjoying the different dances etc.. that it had to offer. Each time we talked, I shared that I did not want her using that platform and shared a couple of my concerns about children and social media in general.
I recently discovered that she had secretly signed up for Tik Tok and was using it without my knowledge during this period of lock down. After coming across some things that scared and unsettled her, she came clean to me.
This is not designed to criticize her decisions as a child, heck, I know how appealing these social media platforms are as an adult and we all want to be involved or worry about missing out! It is also not designed to criticize me as a parent for dropping the ball and not knowing what was going on under my nose, although I did have moments of feeling mad at myself for not knowing.
This is designed to be a caution to other parents right now. We are exhausted. Life has changed in an instant. Now we are homeschooling, trying to work from home, or worrying about the lack of work. We are catering to children of different ages, trying to manage everyone’s fear and anxiety and take care of our homes. The list is endless. I, like many other parents, looked forward to the time when she would grab her tablet and go watch something in her room, grateful that she was entertained and that I could take a much-needed breath. Our kids are glued to their devices more than ever, and this is a scary consequence of this unprecedented situation we find ourselves in. There will be predators who know this and will seek to exploit that fact. We have to be aware of what our children are doing when they are on their tablets/smart phones and so on. I am certainly not a naïve parent, I grew up with a father who was a Detective and he made sure we knew the dangers that were out there, I work in mental health and see and hear a lot too, but still I was blindsided.
I am by no means suggesting that we hover over our children, peppering them with questions about what they are doing/who they are speaking to and so on, but I am saying that this is a critical time for our children. They are scared too. Their lives have changes drastically and they may seek friendships and connection online that may not be everything it appears to be on the surface.
Maybe it is time to have conversations with your kids. Real, honest conversations where you clearly lay out what you are comfortable with them using and what you want them to stay away from. Explain to them why you feel that way and open up that line of communication.
If they share something with you that upsets you, make sure that once the discipline has taken place that you hug them, tell them you love them and thank them for sharing with you, even though they knew they would get into trouble. Encourage them to always come to you with these things, even if they know you will be upset or angry. You never want your child to be so afraid of your reaction that they never open up to you again, that is a dangerous place to get to and it is very hard to break those walls down once they have been built up.
Share with them that you made mistakes too as a child and young adult. Thankfully, for those of us who grew up pre-social media, we don’t have to view our mistakes forever and not that many people even knew about our screw ups! If you feel comfortable, even tell them what your parents’ reaction was to your missteps and discus whether you thought it was fair, or could have been handled better.
Ask them what it was about the social media platform that they really liked or enjoyed and come up with ways to foster that creativity in a safer environment. For example, if they say they enjoyed sharing dance routines with their friends, find a way for them to do that via video messenger, without posting something for the world to see.
I am thinking of all of you parents right now, and I want you to know we are all in this together. No parent is perfect, no child is perfect, and we all have to adapt to this unique time we find ourselves living in. I hope this article made you think and will help start important conversations with your children.
By Amy Dougley
Amy is the owner of Brant Mental Health Solutions. She is not a mental health practitioner, and offers these blogs and articles purely from a parenting point of view and to start discussions among other parents.