I’ve spent the past five years warning parents that we need to look out for the peril of allowing our kids to grow up shared. I’ve researched how children’s privacy, safety and autonomy can be hampered by our constant online connections. But as I ease my way into our new normal during coronavirus social distancing, I’m realizing that the power of social media might be greater than its peril. It might be the only way for me to stay connected with my community while we remain physically apart.
Families can harness the power of social media in many ways right now. Here are a few ways to bring kids into the conversation.
Highlight the strength of virtual connections. Now is a great time to talk to your kids about the benefits of interacting online. We’ve spent so much time harping on the negatives — the risks of oversharing, the dangers of third parties stealing our information, the harm of staying “in the news feed” instead of “in the moment” — but now is a good time to talk about the positives. Social media will probably be an important tool to help us stay connected with family and friends. Finding a space for kids to safely use it with us benefits all of us.
Set goals. Think about what your family hopes to gain from social media. For me, I find that by interacting with friends online, I am starting to learn how to process my new reality. I also value the information shared by friends who are teachers, experts, medical providers and policymakers. My curated news feed might not always be 100 percent accurate, but it helps me frame the issues and think deeper about the widespread effect the coronavirus will have on our lives in the coming months.
Encourage schools to find safe online spaces for kids to connect with teachers. A natural place to start is with classmates and teachers. Amy Beres, my son’s middle school band teacher, explained that students succeed not solely because of the quality of instruction they receive in the classroom, but in the spaces between structured work. Translating that in-person attention to online connection is critical as we navigate through the uncharted waters of school closures due to the coronavirus. Beres will use Google Classroom/Google Meet to check in with her students so that connections outside of “did you complete your work?” remain.
Embrace reality. Remind kids that it is okay to be vulnerable sometimes. “Obviously, I don’t think it’s appropriate to share every intimate detail of my life with my students,” Beres said. But she thinks it’s important for her students to see that teachers are real people, too — people with pets, family, celebrations and struggles. Hopefully, Beres said, if they can see how we handle those various types of situations, they will learn how to navigate difficult times on their own. Used appropriately, social media can help kids understand how the coronavirus is affecting their friends and family.
Honor your child’s individuality. When sharing on a family social media feed (or your own feed), consider everyone’s feelings. We are spending a lot of time with our kids right now, and it is natural to want to share the good times with friends. In my house, two of my kids love for me to share their day-to-day activities on social media. One has even told me to “stop asking” before sharing her artwork, because she wants me to always share. But my teen wants to be in control of his digital identity. Unless he shares first on his social media feed, I rarely share about him on my own page. We can find ways to share our family stories without turning our backs on our children’s feelings.
Consider the role of social media in social justice issues. Social media offers us the space to express, the network to connect and the power to greatly affect our world. When the popular Facebook group Humans of New York shared stories from a renowned pediatric cancer doctor, donations rolled in to support his work, raising millions of dollars for pediatric cancer research. When families started pouring ice water on their heads as part of the ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge,” families all over the globe learned about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. And today, as we isolate ourselves inside our homes, social media offers us a way to create community, influence our peers to stay home and support our friends battling the coronavirus on the front lines of grocery stores and emergency rooms.
The next few months are going to be difficult and often lonely. “I will miss my kids a A LOT!” Beres told me. She knows that switching from in-person connections to virtual ones will be challenging, but Beres wants her students to know that no matter what tomorrow brings, she remains just an online message away. Our physical networks will shrink in the coming months. Our virtual connections won’t be able to replace those face-to-face contacts, but hopefully they can ease some the social challenges that lie ahead.
Stacey Steinberg is a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where she supervises the Gator TeamChild Juvenile Law Clinic. She is the author of the forthcoming book “Growing Up Shared.” Follow Stacey on Twitter @sgsteinberg or visit her website.