How To Help Young Children Navigate Online Socializing
While many of us wouldn’t have considered letting our young children socialize online, the pandemic has pushed that issue. Here’s how to support the process.
The best way for kids to socialize is in person. There’s no replacing how interpersonal interactions teach our children social, cognitive, and physical skills. That said, the pandemic has called for creativity about socializing, including for our kids who are much younger than we’d ever expected to be communicating virtually.
Here are some strategies for helping children under the age of 13 understand and use online social platforms safely and effectively:
Discuss your goals
Before diving into letting our children socialize virtually, we need to explore the “why” of it.
First, talk with your child about how they’re feeling about their opportunities to interact. What do they think they’re missing out on, if anything? Which friends and/or extended family do they wish they could see?
Next, explore this question with your co-parent. What do each of you hope your child will gain from the experience? What do you believe your child is lacking? Are there ways they could meet these needs offline in a safe way or is electronic communication the only way?
Combining these answers will help you come to a decision about whether online socializing is helpful for your child and how extensive an experience is warranted.
Choose platform(s) carefully
The answers to the above questions will also help you think through which platform(s) will be best for your child.
Preschool-aged children may be solely missing out on socializing with extended family members, their primary source of socialization. In this case, FaceTime or texting (using voice recordings or speech-to-text) may be sufficient to meet their needs.
For elementary school-aged children, having interactions with a well-defined set of friends may be the most developmentally appropriate. In this case, choose a platform that lets you control who your child is connected with, such as Messenger Kids, which is coordinated by a parent through Facebook. A platform like this includes fun features that kids this age love, like filters while video chatting and simple games they can play together. Most importantly, they are protected from outside influences since they can’t connect with anyone without your permission.
Children who are in the late elementary and middle school years may be craving a wider net of socialization. Allowing access to a full social media app at this age may be concerning, though, given ongoing research, such as about Instagram’s possible psychological impacts on adolescent girls. These apps also disallow children under the age of 13. Instead, consider offering a wider net for traditional texting and video chatting on a phone or tablet.
Talk through ground rules
Whatever platform(s) you and your co-parent agree to use with your child, you need to set and talk through ground rules with your child, including time limits, if any, and times of day or contexts for use (e.g., not at the dinner table).
You’ll also want to talk through – repeatedly – basic information about how online socializing works differently than in-person interactions:
- Your child needs to understand that anything created in print exists forever. Photos and words sent digitally are no longer ours to control; there is no “erasing.” This is an extraordinarily difficult concept for children younger than 6 or 7 to grasp, and even teenagers may not fully understand the implications of this reality. This is why platform choice is so important; you want to explain this fact to them repeatedly while also offering guardrails when they inevitably send something regrettable.
- Discuss what online bullying looks like. Odds are they’ll be on the receiving end and, perhaps unintentionally, will send some painful messages. Without facial/bodily expressions and vocal tone to modulate our words, we can hurt people and be hurt more readily in online means than in person.
- Similarly, discuss how the sense of distance we feel in electronic means can make us act differently than we would in person. Talk about taking a pause and reviewing materials before sending them. This is going to be nearly impossible for kids under 7 to do effectively, however, so you’ll need to monitor them.
Monitor their use
Just as we often stay within earshot of young kids’ playdates – especially with new friends – monitoring online socialization is important for catching inappropriate use and reinforcing the ground rules you’ve discussed. Consequences for such breeches, if any, should be laid out in advance. What’s most important, though, is to use their inevitable incorrect choices as a learning opportunity.
Children need to know in advance how and what you’ll be monitoring. Explain that this isn’t being done because you don’t trust them, but rather that you understand that when someone is learning a new skill, they’ll need some support doing so. It’s just like standing nearby as they first learn to use the monkey bars. You step back as they get stronger and prove that they can use the apparatus without being harmed or harmful.
Monitoring, such as nightly scrolls through online activity, can take a lot of parental time and energy. A paid monitoring application, such as Bark or Qustodio, can be used instead. These apps watch in the background and alert you to any potentially concerning activities, based on your specifications.
With the right conversations, choices and guidance during use, online socialization can be fruitful for children of many ages, at least until they can get back to the socialization that’s healthiest for all of us: being physically together.