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A New Online Role for Parents

Dr. Kim Weller Gregory discusses a new role for parents in dealing with their children's lives online.
Dr. Kim Weller Gregory in a discussion with parents about their role in the online lives of their children. Photo: Bill Gary

Almost 70 percent of children post information online every single day, according to work by the Pew Research Center. So what should parents do to make sure their children are safe on the web? Dr. Kim Weller Gregory, an assistant professor in the Knight School of Communication, has some initial recommendations about what parents can do.

"Parents need to learn how to straddle the digital divide," Gregory said in a recent discussion with parents in a Charlotte elementary school. "They can start by trying to be where their child is when he or she is surfing the web. The reality is that children today are shifting among platforms at lightning speed, but parents can show their child that they are aware by learning the tools and participating.  Being in the same room isn't enough anymore.  Parents have to show their presence in other ways-by being online too."  Parents need to do their best to track the social media footprint of their children.  "Follow and 'friend' your child," Gregory advises, "'Google' them and see what pops up."

Today's children were born into an era where the value of privacy isn't self-evident.  Gregory says parents need to teach children the meaning and importance of privacy and discretion, so that they understand why some information should not be posted. Finally, she says, the subject needs a light touch. Parents need to listen more than they talk, and humor can help ensure that lines of communication stay open. Children need to feel as though they can open up with their mom or dad.

Because children are digital natives and have grown up with social media, they know almost instinctively what it is. But parents sometimes need a short primer. As Gregory explains it, social media is "any interactions where people create and share information, ideas and images in digital communities and networks."The most popular social media platforms for children and young teenagers, Gregory says, are text messaging, Instagram, Snapchat, Kik, Youtube, and Vine. All are connected in some sort of way, and recent industry and academic research indicates that many children and teens are shying away from Facebook because it has become "mom's platform." The older generation has taken it over. Each of these social networking tools has an app designed for smartphones, so kids with phones can easily access them at nearly any time.

The good news about this kind of accessibility, Gregory advises parents, is that it teaches digital literacy skills, collaboration, creativity, and other social skills at an early age. Kids are becoming extremely creative with social media, and the tools enable them to share their ideas with others and collaborate on projects involving photography, video and music. The Pew Research Center shows that kids who text more tend to talk more and are more social. Social media is social interaction.

The bad news, she says, is the lack of control on the part of children. Pew research indicates that many children aren't private at all about the things they post online, when privacy is the key to their safety.Pew research indicates that 92 percent of teens post their real name to profiles, 91 percent post a photo of themselves as a profile picture, 84 percent post their interests, 82 percent post their date of birth, and 71 percent post their home city. Social media tools are complicit in this, because they encourage and sometimes require users to complete portions of these profiles. But the new generation of children doesn't yet realize that they are not being forced to post everything. In addition, Gregory says, children become careless about what they post online, not realizing the inadvertent effects that it could have on their image, reputation and future.

"There is no turning back," Gregory advises parents. "Kids are going to be online, and parents need to be online too, so that they can monitor and guide what their children do in a new and potentially dangerous environment. Parents need to talk to their children about the permanence of what they post online, and to teach them that information can still be seen, even after it has been deleted." The benefits outweigh the costs, Gregory says encouragingly.  "Parents worry but it's all going to be okay in the end."  But today's parents have a distinct new online role to play in the development of their children. 

Story and chalkboard illustration by Jarden Wilson '17. 

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