Parental involvement

The holidays are coming, and a great gift that parents could unwrap for themselves and their families this Christmas is to take a real interest in what their children are doing in the social-media world.  

Mothers and fathers who keep close tabs on their kids’ Facebook and Twitter activity are still in the minority. It may be hard to believe, given the regular stream of stories we hear and see about problems with social-media sites. But it is true. My experience with the parents I meet during my media-awareness presentations backs up this statement, as do studies that take a close-up look at our online lives.  

It’s also true that the latest research shows Mom and Dad are not the people of choice to whom young people turn when they encounter a troubling situation on the Internet. 

According to the latest Pew Internet and American Life Project report, even though many teens interviewed have received some words of caution from their parents, 53 percent will turn first to friends or peers when witnessing online cruelty. And only 3 percent will turn to a teacher for assistance when they run into meanness on social-media sites.  

There is another statistic from the same survey of nearly 800 teens ages 12 to 17 that should also set off some alarm bells. Some 88 percent of those questioned for the survey have witnessed people being mean or cruel on social-media sites. About 41 percent have themselves reported at least one negative experience. 

The one bright spot is that the study did not contain all bad news. It did show that social media is having some positive effect. About 65 percent of the teens interviewed for the Pew Internet usage update said they had an experience on a site that has encouraged them in a good way and some 58 percent say a social media site has helped them in terms of connecting and feeling closer to another person.  

Common Sense Media founder Jim Steyer was interviewed for a USA Today story regarding the Pew survey. Steyer’s organization is a nonprofit group dedicated to educating families about media usage. Steyer told the paper the mixture of good and bad news in the Pew summary should be a reminder that we still have so much to learn about the long term impact of a social media. He said our lives on- and offline are merging more and more and insists this is all the more reason parents need to get their heads out of the proverbial sand. 

“There is still so much we don’t know about how (social media) affects teens’ social and emotional development,” Steyer said. 

Other experts interviewed for the article say too many parents still don’t know how to help their child with their online abuse and therefore often don’t take problems seriously. Given the popularity of technology these days, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that your child most likely already has some sort of media gadget at the top of his Christmas gift wish list. Instead of just handing out the latest and greatest iPhone, iPad or laptop, why not also place in their stocking some parental guidelines that should include — at the very least — limiting the amount of time your children can spend online and informing your tween or teen that his activity will be monitored regularly. With more than 700 million people around the world using Facebook and 93 percent of the 12- to 17-year-olds interviewed recently by the Pew Center claiming to have an active Facebook account, parental involvement in your children’s media activity will definitely be the gift that keeps on giving. 

Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 160.