Social media can be a challenging topic for parents. Having grown up in a world without constant access to technology, it can seem both strange and frustrating to parents that their children want to spend so much time in digital spaces. Over at Eduro Learning, we’re super excited about the launch of our new Parenting in the Digital Age online courses (designed for parents, but also great for teachers!) to help them deal with all aspects of growing up in a media-rich world. And as part of that launch, we’re sharing some of our favorite resources, tips and ideas in weekly Facebook Live sessions, blog posts and free resources. This week we’re focusing on the advantages and challenges of having access to so much content, all the time.

Here’s the thing: kids are spending a lot of time in online spaces, and for the adults around them, this can feel really uncomfortable. What are they doing there? Is it a waste of time? Should I be monitoring everything? For an intro into how kids are spending time in online spaces, check out last week’s Eduro Learning Facebook Live video recording (see below) and this blog post.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Even though we might be tempted to tell our children to stop watching that YouTube video or to put their devices away, the reality is that there are some great learning opportunities online, as well as some negative elements that are worth considering.

The Positive: Following Your Passion

One of the best things about the constant availability of content from a wide range of creators is that anyone (including children and teens) can explore and follow a passion. Anything you can imagine, you can learn about on YouTube, from playing an instrument to learning how to dance to creating a special meal. For many teens, media-sharing sites (like YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat) might be the only way they can learn about an interest, particularly one that’s not part of the traditional school structure.

It might not be possible to learn how to breakdance during the school day, or there might not be access to lessons after school, or the money to pay for them, but anyone with the passion, interest and motivation can learn online, for free. For me, this is the most exciting part of the internet. Being able to learn almost anything, almost anytime, almost anywhere is incredibly empowering – especially for young people who are still exploring the kind of person they would like to grow up to be.

And the best part about so many of these media-sharing sites, is that the content is being created by “regular people” – people who may either be experts in a topic or still learning, who have decided to share their knowledge and expertise with others. And because an essential element of social media is two-way communication, it’s expected that both content creators and consumers will be able to directly interact with each other. In this way, communities of learners form around the content or skill that binds them together. For younger learners, who are discovering passions and interests that may not be a big part of their face-to-face social interactions, these types of communities can be a great space for learning.

So, while parents may think that watching YouTube vidoes is a waste of time and should be limited, it can be quite possible that there is great learning going on, that a community based on shared interests and passions is supporting your child’s learning goals, and that they are developing skills and expertise that might be impossible in a face-to-face setting.

Of course, that’s not the only option, there is the other side of the coin:

The Negative: Exploiting Your Insecurities

When we think of media, we often think of advertising and the constant barrage of images and video that we haven’t chosen to look at specifically, but is presented to us, often as advertising. However, that’s not the only way that we are exposed to media that may be exploiting our insecurities, or potentially sending us down a sub-optimal “learning journey”.

One example that we see impacting students (and adults, actually) all around the world is the prevalence of unrealistic lifestyle examples shared on social media. Although the intention of these accounts may often be “inspirational”, they can create unrealistic expectations for young people in all sorts of settings: from clothing and makeup choices, to physical appearance, to romantic relationships.

Some specific topics that come to mind are Instagram “fitness models”, social media “lifestyles of the rich and famous”, and the prevalence and availability of porn in online spaces that is currently changing the dynamics of relationships between adolescents. Unfortunately, it’s likely that your child will, at the very least, view accounts like these. However, through thoughtful and regular conversations, you can help them identify which accounts or images or media are supporting positive interests and those that may lead them down a more negative path.

The Silver Lining

It may be counter-intuitive, but the younger generations are often more aware of what is right and wrong in online spaces, simply due to their life experience – think of the grandparent who replies to a spam e-mail in contrast to the young adult who can pick up any new app or website without any help at all. In addition, as we’ve already talked about in last week’s Eduro Learning Facebook Live session (see video embedded above), mostly what kids are doing in online spaces is connecting with their peers – they are generally very cautious about, and frankly not that interested in, communicating with others beyond their peer group. For the most part, social spaces online replicate social spaces in their face-to-face environment.

However, it’s important to recognize  that your child is going to come across both positive and negative media online. Just seeing these things occasionally is not going to scar them for life, however they do need skills to distinguish between the positive and negative influences they will find online. Educators often call these media literacy skills.

Here are a few skills you may want to highlight with your child, along with some potential conversation starters. Keep in mind, that as a parent, you already have all these skills, most likely developed in a physical context and you can make parallels to the digital world as you talk about them with your child.

  • Skill: Being able to judge when something is coming from a trusted source. Conversation starter: Who made this? How do you know? What else can you find out about them? What other resources reference this one?
  • Skill: Understanding that media can easily be edited / faked online. Conversation starter: How do you know this is real? Are there any clues in the image, video, account to help you determine if it’s real / true or not?
  • Skill: Being cautious about putting personal information online. Conversation starter: who is going to see this when you post it? How did you decide to share this? What will your friends think when they see it?
  • Skill: Understanding and recognizing the appropriateness of content they explore – and the context in which they are viewing it. Conversation starter: How do you feel when you see this? Would you show this to your teacher / a friend’s parent?

Final Thoughts

As always, the most important thing to remember is that regular and open conversations with your child(ren) is the best way to help them learn, practice and reinforce these critical skills. If this is something you’ve been successful at, please share your tips at our next Facebook Live session! If this is something you’re struggling with, please join us to hear our tips, as well as tips from other parents!

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