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August 1, 2012

How much social media is too much for teens and tweens?

By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer

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Clawson High School student LaShon Powell, 16, of Pontiac stops into Blair Memorial Library in Clawson to check in with Facebook.

She tweeted this. His Facebook status said that. There’s a lot going on in the wide world of online social networking, but not all of it may make sense to unfamiliar parents.

With a new school year just around the corner, giving students the chance to make loads of new friends, it’s not a bad time for parents to brush up on their cyber skills.

Emily Hay knows what a big part of everyday life social networking has become for people around the world. Hay, founder of Hay There Social Media, works with organizations each day to show them how vital it is to have a presence on such social media sites as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and others that allow users to easily interact with each other. The Birmingham-based company helps small businesses, schools, community organizations and more to develop social media marketing strategies and use these popular websites to their advantage.

But while working with clients on becoming more socially savvy, Hay noticed something — many of her clients were parents, and while they were neglecting the online world, they were also turning a blind eye to what their own children might be doing on the Web. And that, she said, could lead to a dangerous situation.

“It’s important to prepare a child to be a good digital citizen. Parents have a hard time understanding that offline life blends into online life. (Social media sites) are really powerful communication tools, and kids at that age just don’t have that maturity.”

Parents shouldn’t expect their kids to learn about technology on their own. Instead, they should be a student’s first resource when it comes to learning important online behaviors. Hay said that while social networking can be beneficial and even necessary for young people to use, the sites can also be havens for bullying, identity theft and even child predators.

“It’s important to prepare them to be good digital citizens,” said Hay, adding that despite the risks, kids shouldn’t be sheltered completely from social media.

“That’ s holding them back from learning to navigate. If your child has never been exposed to social media sites (or) had Mom and Dad talk to them about how they should behave on social media, you can see how it can become a big problem quickly.”

Helping parents find a balance between social media usage and safety is what Hay had in mind when she developed her new program, “Saving Face for Parents.” The coaching program is designed to guide parents in using social media effectively, while learning what threats could arise for teens online. Parents will learn how to have conversations with their child to ensure their safety today and down the line.

“Parents need to help kids understand how the Internet archives everything. Everything they do will be on the Net a long time. Everything you do today definitely impacts what they do tomorrow. No matter what age, think ahead for college applications,” said Hay, explaining that distasteful posts or status updates, as well as inappropriate photos, could show a student in a bad light when it comes to applying for college in the future.

Not only could risqué online activity endanger a child’s chances at going to their first choice university, it could put them at risk of falling victim to identity thieves or online predators. Macomb County Sherriff Anthony Wickersham said his department is always working to crack down on these types of criminals, but it’s up to teens to know how to handle such threats.

“We have our Macomb Area Computer Enforcement team. And we do a lot of education with students and parents to social media. All of the tips are really about being cautious, because you don’t know who you’re talking to.”

Wickersham said parents should be sure their children aren’t giving out personal information online, such as their age, where they go to school or where they like to hang out.

“The threat is there. We’ve taken out many predators portraying themselves as younger girls or boys. Many of them want to meet. I don’t want to scare anybody, but it’s definitely a reality.”

The key, he said, is for parents to know what their kids are doing online, even if their child doesn’t like it.

“They need to monitor their children’s activity, and build that confidence and trust with their kids. They need to get passwords to these accounts. Tell them they’re not spying on them, but kids need to remember that parents are parents, and a part of that is to protect their children.”

Aside from safety risks, Kevin Roberts said parents need to keep an eye on how social media is affecting their child’s different development milestones. Roberts is the author of “Cyber Junkie: Escaping the Gaming and Internet Trap.” The Bloomfield Hills resident works with a number of clients who have trouble using or even abusing technology, including Internet addicts and young people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Roberts has a number of recommendations for families that introduce social networking into their homes; chief among them is not to let technology rule the roost. Younger Web users have a tendency to focus too much on social media, he said, and that could lead to a deficit in real-world social skills.

“Parents have to be aware that the cyber world, video games, texting, etc., have great benefits, but use of them does have an impact on the brain. Over focus, and some special skills might not develop well, and that could lead to serious consequences.”

To be sure kids aren’t spending too much time using technology, Roberts recommends that parents take steps to limit access to devices, such as banning smart phones from the dinner table, setting a maximum time allowed on video games or computers, and not allowing TVs or computers in the bedroom.

But Roberts and Hay both agree that social media shouldn’t be barred altogether. Parents and children need to work together to learn how to handle online responsibilities.

“The world is becoming a cyber world — business, news, information, connections with friends, a good amount of that is taking place online. If we attempt to completely eliminate our children’s access to it, we’re probably not going to be successful because the stuff is everywhere,” he said.

“Trying to eliminate access to it will only increase desirability. Those are often the kids who have the biggest problem, the ones whose parents didn’t help them learn how to use it responsibly.”

For more information about Kevin Roberts, including his book, support groups for cyber addiction and camps for ADHD kids, visit www.KevinJRoberts.net. To learn more about Hay There Social Media and “Saving Face for Parents,” visit www.HayThereSocialMedia.com.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at tesshaki@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1095.