Lose Your Inner Ostrich!

Last week GCP attended a Common Sense Media lunch where a panel of experts discussed the impact of media on the self-esteem and body image of boys and girls. Expertly moderated by Nightline co-anchor Cynthia McFadden, the panel featured Joanna Coles, editor-in-chief of Marie Claire magazine, Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and school consultant specializing in children’s social and emotional development, Mitch Marrow, a former NFL player turned businessman who is focused on young athletes’ issues with gaining and losing weight, and Amy Guggenheim Shenkan, President and COO of Common Sense Media. After a lively discussion of how images in all forms of media, especially social media, impact our children’s self-esteem and body image, the panelists concluded that parents should:

*teach their children to be critical consumers of media by watching videos, etc. with them and using what they see as a basis for discussion.

*talk to their kids about how to interpret and understand the many messages they are getting from their regular interaction with television, music, video games, and websites, especially social media sites;

*get smart about how to access and operate in their children’s digital world. The Common Sense Media curriculum available on its website (www.commonsensemedia.org) is a helpful tool for smart media consumption.

This last bit of advice needs repeating: Parents need to be aware of and savvy about the various sites their children use to communicate with each other and the outside world. So often I hear parents dismiss the concept of getting a Facebook page or taking the time to understand Twitter and Tumblr and why their children are using them. “I can barely figure out the apps on my cell phone” they complain. “I’m just not a technical person”. Or “My children would never friend me, they’d kill me if I followed them on Twitter, and I really don’t want to know what they are doing and saying anyway.” Or “I want them to have the freedom to have their own space; they need to have their privacy”. These parents are succumbing to their inner ostriches, burying their heads in the sand so that they don’t have to deal with what they don’t want to know or understand. With all the unfiltered stuff that is floating around in cyberspace, we can’t afford not to know what our children are encountering. Even if you consider yourself an old dog, you’re still in charge of puppies, so you have to learn new tricks to keep up with them.

How do you get smart about the fast changing social media landscape? As noted above, Common Sense Media’s site can be very helpful to give you some basic information. Their “Review and Advice” section explains and rates a variety of popular social networking sites. What else can you do? Look around the web for sites which explain the latest social media sites; there are plenty “social media 101” sites on the web. Once you have a sense of what’s out there, ask your son or daughter what sites they like to use. Be curious, not critical, and you might be surprised by how willing they are to allow you to peek into their digital world.

To be clear, it is not necessary or even advisable to stalk your son or daughter on Facebook or Twitter every day. Nor should you feel compelled to regularly chat with them about the mundane stuff you see there. Just check in from time to time. Unless your child is eager to engage with you about what’s posted on his page, try to avoid weighing in on anything unless you see something potentially harmful. And if you do, try to avoid a judgmental tone in your discussion. Your son is more likely to hear and understand how something could be harmful if he is not feeling defensive about your having found it on his page.

Be sure to focus on the pictures as well. It is astonishing how naïve even the most sophisticated young social networker can be about the accessibility of the photos and posts on these sites. Schools, recruiters and employers can and often do manage to gain access to them, even without knowing the passwords. See GCP’s earlier post, “Parent’s Guide to Social Networking” (March 28, 2011) for some additional tips.

The bottom line is that like it or not, we need to get smart about the various sites our children are regularly visiting and communicating through. Pull your head out of the sand and make the effort to research what you don’t know.

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