It’s been a busy time for our Internet Safety for Kids & Families (ISKF) team. Our outreach efforts at schools are gathering some great momentum, with our volunteers doing close to 80 events for parents and kids in the US over the past 3 months (and many more around the world).  In our work, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to help kids and parents and share our expertise about positive, responsible, and safe technology use.  But after working with thousands every year for the last decade, we’ve also learned a few things along the way.

With over half of U.S. kids now owning a smartphone by the age of 11, parents are understandably anxious.  During our events, parents share their concerns about their child’s safety and well-being and worry about the risks of overuse, oversharing, bullying and other issues that seem to be around every corner.  While we’ve seen an increase in parent engagement and general knowledge about online issues and countermeasures in recent years, they still talk about feeling ill-equipped to provide their kids with the right guidance (despite kids wanting very much to turn to them first for help online when they need it).

To friend or not to friend?

One of the biggest challenges facing parents is how to engage with their kids online, and even, whether they should at all.  To help parents navigate this minefield we ran a Twitter poll in September, under the hashtag #AskAStupidQuestionDay. Sometimes parents, and kids alike for that matter, can be embarrassed to ask questions on topics they care about for fear of seeming dumb or out-of-touch. But misinformation and bad practices thrive in the absence of knowledge. The truth is, when it comes to our children’s well-being, there are no stupid questions.

In our poll, we asked parents to choose from a list of questions they were most interested in.  Topping the list was whether they should “friend” their kids on social media.  After all, you’d talk to each other in the real world, so why not say “hi” once in a while on Facebook, Instagram and other social sites you’re both users of?

There are pros and cons to being one of your kids’ friends on social media.

On the positive side, we should encourage kids to be selective about who they connect with online and help them feel that they have some control over it.  By keeping their accounts private they not only protect themselves, they are also empowered to decide who can see what they are posting and who is in their social network.  Ideally, these would be people they know and trust (and hopefully, that includes you!)  Obviously, being in their social network means you can see and comment on their posts, know who else they are engaging with online, and have the opportunity to engage with them in some meaningful way.  For some kids, being friends with their parents online isn’t a problem as long as there are boundaries.  And parents should know that this isn’t a complete answer to knowing everything your child is doing online.  Everyone, including them, still has the option to share with a smaller group (or even a single person through direct messaging within the social media app), but it’s still a way to be involved.

On the flip side, some might argue that asking their children to friend them on social media is tantamount to invading their privacy. Many parents I’ve spoken with want to monitor their kids’ online use, but are loathe to be seen as spying.  You don’t listen in to their phone calls with friends, so why would you want to monitor their online conversations?  Kids may also choose to manage multiple accounts in order to separate friends from family, which doesn’t completely defeat the purpose of friending your kids since it’s still away to model good online citizenship and engage them in a way that matters to them.  But as in real life, kids (and we adults) behave differently depending on who they’re with. Finally, parents may also want boundaries for themselves.  You may want to share things or have friends who share things that are best kept away from your kids and their friends.

Time to talk?

Kids do need (and are protective of) their privacy, but still need help navigating social media responsibly.  So, to friend or not to friend? As always, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. It’s OK to be friends on social media, with pre-arranged guidelines you’re both comfortable with. But not if you’re going to use, say Facebook, as a de facto surveillance tool. One parent likens the ideal set-up to checking in occasionally, as you would at a house party where your kids and their friends are. That means, popping your head around the door to make sure everything’s OK once in a while, but not staying to chat on the couch.

Connecting with kids in their online spaces can be a positive experience for them and for you, but it’s not the panacea. Look for opportunities instead to connect more offline and keep the door open so they feel they can talk to you about whatever they need.  Take time out to understand what their interests are, listen to and respect them.  You don’t need social media to show them you care. Tell them in person – it takes just a little more effort than scrolling and tapping on a heart.

Lynette Owens

Lynette Owens

Lynette Owens is Vice President of Global Consumer Education & Marketing at Trend Micro and Founder of the Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. With 25+ years in the tech industry, Lynette speaks and blogs regularly on how to help kids become great digital citizens. She works with communities and 1:1 school districts across the U.S. and around the world to support online safety, digital and media literacy and digital citizenship education. She is a board member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, an advisory committee member of the Digital Wellness Lab, and serves on the advisory boards of INHOPE and U.S. Safer Internet Day.

Follow her on Twitter @lynettetowens.