I often get asked, "If you are giving parents access to every piece of data about their child's activity on the phone, what about their privacy? Are you saying that parents should use this information to interrogate their kids?"
But let's take a step back and start with you.
Do you have teenagers who have been on social media for a while? Have you given up because it's too overwhelming & you're tired of hearing 'leave me alone' and 'stop interrogating me'?
Maybe you’re the father of two girls, 4 and 7 years old, your darling angels who have you wrapped around their fingers. You sing Butterfly Kisses in your head reminiscing about their sweet smile but immediately switch to the thoughts of the bad things that could happen the day you give them a smartphone.
Or perhaps you're pregnant and expecting your first baby boy. Social media access probably isn't even something you care about right now. But you know that your friend's kids are struggling with it. Your best friend talked to you last week about the therapist her 10-year-old started seeing because of the constant cyberbullying he experienced online. When you hear those stories, it makes you worry about the day your son says, "Mommy...when can I have a phone like my friends at school?" But you push that to the back of your mind because the baby shower is next week and that day is far far away.
It doesn't matter what stage of parenting you are in. We all share the same fear: it's the fear of something unknown. And that's what xenophobia originally meant: the tendency to be afraid of something you have no information about. It happens to all of us.
A lot of people (especially parents) react to fear by protecting themselves. They put up barriers, create more rules, and try not to be vulnerable.
When we react out of fear, we are protecting ourselves, not our kids. But protecting yourself won't solve anything; it will just create more barriers between you and your child.
Protecting yourself won't give you the chance to teach your child how to see things from a different perspective. It will prevent you from deepening the bond and connection that you want with your child. And it can even make things worse.
Control doesn't work. It is an illusion that alleviates the fear of the unknown for only a minute. You might think, "If I control my child's social media then they won't have access to all of the bad stuff that could happen." Wrong. We can't truly control what our kids do online because there are too many possibilities and so many new apps being created every day. There is no way to keep up.
If we only give them a "dumbed-down" phone that doesn't have social media, they'll feel left out because all of their friends are sending pictures to each other on Snapchat, posting videos on TikTok, or laughing about some inside joke from Reddit. Limiting what they can do will make them rebel and take risks. They will use a friend's phone to create their accounts or figure out some other way to circumvent your controls. The internet is everywhere.
Setting time restrictions doesn't stop bad things from happening. It just ensures that those things can only happen during certain hours of the day.
So should you just give them free access to everything and say 'good luck'?
No. That's also not the answer. Parenting is about teaching our kids to learn for themselves by exposing them to measurable risk. You wouldn't take your child to the beach for the first time, throw them in the ocean, and walk away. You wouldn't get to a busy street with your toddler, let go of their hand, and push them forward. The day your child gets their learner's permit to drive, you don't pull over on the freeway, switch places with them, and then close your eyes and go to sleep.
When our kids need to learn something new, we teach them. We stand in the ocean holding both hands of our sweet baby boy so he doesn’t fall over while he feels the small waves splash up against his belly. We tell our daughter to look both ways before stepping out into the street, and then we model that for her every time we hold her hand to cross the street. We sit in the passenger seat, start on a slow neighborhood street, and give our children tips so that they can grow into driving safely, completely on their own.
What’s the difference? You.
You: being there.
You: knowing what is going on.
You: modeling what 'right' looks like.
You: advising a much broader context than what they currently understand.
But most importantly: you stepping in and rescuing them if they go too far underwater.
So no, we don't give parents control or the ability to limit. We don't prescribe what words are bad or make judgments on the apps your kids should be able to use. We will never say that time limits are the answer.
Instead, we give unlimited access so that you can make your own decisions about what is best for your child.
The best way to respond to your fear is to protect your child differently: protect their ability to try and fail, protect their ability to become resilient, and protect their freedom to access and use social media.
That way, when you talk to your kids about their accounts, you'll be able to share real examples from your life and frame how they interpret their own experiences. You can teach them how to use social media responsibly and help them see the big picture instead of only focusing on what's in front of them.
If you're a parent, you know there is no "best" way. What works for one child doesn't work for the next. And the last 20 years have shown us that control and limitation don't work to solve the societal issues of how social media affects our kids. So instead of reacting to your fear, take advantage of the fact that there are so many ways to get involved with social media in positive ways. Start the conversation about social media, continue to show up for your child even when it's hard, and be willing to show vulnerability to your kids.