Social Media and Children
By Kevin Vollema
You’re the parent of a ten-year-old asking if he can get a Snapchat account. He comes to you with a carefully thought-out argument about how all of his friends are getting one and that it would be devastating to his social well-being to be deprived of having one himself.
What are you supposed to do? You’re a good parent. The last thing you want to do is devastate his social well-being. Besides, it’s only Snapchat. It’s just people sharing pictures and videos with other people sharing pictures and videos, right?
What is it for? What can it do?
Years ago, I learned these two questions from a person speaking at a conference. It was the speaker’s argument that whenever we encounter something new, we must ask two questions of it: what is it for? and what can it do? I remember him saying that getting the order right is actually most important.
Here’s why the order of these questions matters to the topic of social media and parenting. When it comes to anything new in a child’s world, he or she is mostly only capable of asking the second question: what can it do? From an early age, the question is: what fun can I have with this or that thing? As a child grows and learns to see his or her world through an ever-expanding social lens, the question becomes: what help can this or that thing give me in making and keeping friends? When a child comes asking for social media access because all of his friends are getting it, this is an underlying motivating question. And, this is part of natural and healthy development. He is wanting to figure out who he is in relation to the world around him.
Social media can do lots of things. For a child, social media can broaden cultural exchange and empathy. It can develop his social connections with friends as he shares experiences and learns to express emotions. These can be good things.
However, social media can also grant unmediated access to new ideas and information. In this way, social media becomes a primary source of information for a child without the filtering role that parents ought to supply. As a friend once told me, “My job as a parent is to take my child on a guided-tour of the world.” Parents relinquish some part of this tour guide role when giving their child free access to social media. A child simply doesn’t have the self-filtering skill to deal with everything coming at him.
Parents are really vital here. It is your job and joy to train up your children in the way they should go. Returning to our two questions, this is where keeping the first question the first question really matters. Because children can’t do it for themselves, parents ought to be asking the question: What is social media for? This is the question of design, of intent, of purpose. Parents need to think carefully and wisely about social media and then to teach their kids to think in the same way. Social media can be a powerful tool. But, a powerful tool in the wrong hands can be a dangerous tool.
Let me put rubber to the road. What is social media for? Social media is for human connection. Connection is essential to being human. However, not every point of connection between humans is always good or healthy. There are unhealthy ways to connect. There are unhealthy ways to express oneself. Not everything should be shared and not everything shared should be seen, heard, or felt.
It is your job as a parent to continue being the filter for your child’s human connections, to teach your child how to connect well with others. Social media can be a tool to this end, but only in its proper place and proportion. Make sure that you keep on as the tour guide in your child’s world. Be careful and wise not to surrender too soon this role to the many voices of social media which are not your own.
Keep the line of communication open with your child about social media. When he is ready to enter that world, walk beside him. But remember to ask the two questions in the right order. Practice this for yourself and teach your child to do the same.
Kevin Vollema is a third-year M.Div. student at Reformed Theological Seminary and has served in ministry with youth and college students for over five years. He currently lives in Jackson with his wife and is an avid reader of poetry and fiction.