Middle school can be a tumultuous time for both kids and parents. In our part of the country, middle school starts in either 5th or 6th grade and lasts until 8th grade (some of you lucky West Coast-ers still have the junior high model!). Middle school-aged kids are roughly 10 -14 years old, and A LOT of changes happen during these years. They change physically (hello… my kid is now a foot taller!), they change emotionally, and they begin to explore new unchartered areas of independence. Along with that comes a decent amount of conflicting influences, especially when it comes to taking first steps into online life and social media. All parents want to protect their kids from dangerous situations online and unhealthy connections, but in order to truly protect them, you need to prepare them. Below are five conversations that we believe all parents of middle school kids need to initiate and repeat throughout these critical years. They’re truly foundational to a healthy adjustment into adolescence and adulthood.
Boundaries. You need them. I need them. Your kids need them. They help us establish rules of safety and well-being, emotionally and physically. For the first phase of their life, you are the boundary setters as parents. But that transitions in these middle school years as you teach your kids how to draw their own boundaries about who and what is safe and healthy for them. That includes discussions about:
Read our full blog post about boundaries here.
Their digital diet (what content is helpful, what needs to be kept in moderation, what needs to be avoided)
How much time online is reasonable, responsible, or destructive (sleep, self-esteem)?
What should they allow other people to know about them online? A LOT of teens readily share personal information online, so make sure you cover the risks associated with that disclosure. See this article for more on teens’ over-disclosure on social media.
In keeping with boundaries, SAFE PEOPLE (those who used to be called friends, back before that word was hijacked) are essential. Help your kids define who their actual friends are. If a classmate sends your kid links to porn over a PS4 in-game chat, is that kid really a friend? Can he be trusted? Talk about:
Who they are interacting with online. Teach your kids that not everyone they go to school with is a “friend.” The smaller circles of trusted and known people are always going to be safer than interacting with a crowd of “identified strangers.” Take for example 14-year-old Desirae Turner who was shot in the head by a classmate for “Snapchatting them too much.” If your kids are on social media, they’ll easily be connected to unsafe kids they might “know.”
They’re only as strong as their weakest friend. True, it’s unlikely that your kid will be shot by a classmate, but it’s very possible they’ll be tagged in something sinister or damaging to their personal reputation.
What does it mean to be an upstander? How would a friend act if they notice someone getting ridiculed on social media?
What does privacy have to do with it? A lot of middle schoolers make the mistake of wanting as many online followers and “friends” as possible, so they will make their social profiles public, gaining hundreds or even thousands of friends. If your kids meet the age restrictions for social media (minimum of 13), it’s important to keep watch over their sense of self-esteem and value, making sure they are truly ready to swim in that ocean of hazards and negativity.
It’s not a matter of IF your kids will come across pornography in the middle school years, it’s WHEN and HOW OFTEN. The best thing you can do for your kids is to prepare them to understand the harms of pornography so they can reject it. One of the greatest resources I could point you to as a middle school parent is Fight The New Drug, and specifically, their educational resources. Teach your kids that porn is destructive!
Pornography messes with the brain, at any age, but think about the impact on the developing brain! The neurotransmitters flooding your tweenager’s brain rewire connections and damage their frontal lobe. Click here to learn more.
Pornography is incredibly damaging to relationships. Not just “romantic” relationships (are 10-14 year olds even capable of romance?), but ALL relationships. Pornography is incredibly violent, aggressive, and demeaning. When men are ejaculating on women’s faces as a regular feature of porn videos, it doesn’t take a genius to realize kids who are watching these scenes will be formulating unhealthy views about the way people should treat each other. The ability to empathize is incredibly important to all healthy relationships, and porn deliberately erodes this concept. Click here to learn more.
Pornography is fueling sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and sex trafficking in society at large. When your kids understand the very direct connections between porn and these societal issues, they will better understand their human responsibility to be part of the solution rather than contributing to those who are perpetuating these evil practices. Click here to learn more.
In a recent study in our own community, it was discovered that 93% of 8th grade girls had been asked for a nude photo. (No doubt these requests are being influenced by the amount of pornography their peers are consuming.) I loved the very honest and real question from an 8th grade girl after one of our presentations recently about how she could stop the continual requests. She wanted help, and she was ready to go to the next level of getting authorities involved. Talk to your kids about:
Research shows that 90% of nude images make their way past the intended recipient.
Most often girls are feeling pressured to produce and deliver these images, and even straight up blackmailed. Anyone who asks them for these images does not actually care about them (see the section on “friends” up above). We must train our girls to NEVER comply with these requests, and to put very distinct boundaries in place with anyone who has attempted to pressure them.
When it comes to sexting, being an upstander is incredibly difficult, but so so needed. A boy who forwards images (as is often the case, we do not mean to stereotype… it’s just very common) to his entire contact list has now thrown down a challenge to all of those kids… who will speak up and stop the wildfire from going further? Yes, it seems embarrassing or shaming to call out a kid you barely know for passing around nude pictures, but if you put yourself in the shoes of the kid who is IN the pictures, you’ll better understand why you need to stand up and say something. Get an adult involved right away and make sure you document what was sent, when, and to whom. It’s also important to realize that some states recognize the distribution of underaged nude photos as pornography and classify this crime as a felony. It’s a big deal, and we need to help our kids be prepared to do the right thing if they come across it.
It’s said that “the Internet never forgets,” and that can be true in many respects when it comes to the choices kids are making online. Posting things that are considered hate speech can get you kicked out of Harvard before you even arrive on campus. Commenting “u r ugly” to someone else may be the last straw in compelling them to self-harm or attempt suicide.
Something about the screen makes our kids feel a false sense of courage to behave badly, thinking it will be lost in the grains of sand on the beaches of the Internet. We must constantly draw our kids back to the golden rule: treat others the way you would want to be treated. Here’s a helpful acronym when it comes to determining how to respond to something in the digital world… ask yourself if your response (comment, post, etc) is:
T.H.I.N.K. before you post! Your digital footprint could benefit your life goals or sabotage them. What you do and say online can make others feel horrible or incredible. Your choices matter!
Conversation Goes a LONG Way
My 13-year-old son returned home from a birthday party where some 12-year-old boys had spent a decent amount of time on Snapchat with girls they knew. Perhaps joking, it’s still unclear, one of the other boys suggested they send over some “nudes.” Boy oh boy, was I glad I had prepared my kid for that situation with previous conversations. His response? “Dude, that’s a felony! If you do that, I’ll have to report you!” (Okay, it was an intense response, but he’s an intense kid.) Bottom line: he knew what to do to keep himself safe… and he shut down the situation.
As you parent your middle schoolers through these critical years linking childhood to teenage independence, talk often about what life looks like online. What are their peers saying and doing? What have they seen or heard about that makes them feel uncomfortable? How will they handle difficult situations in the future?
We’re thankful that we’re not in this fight alone. We have great friends, pastors, and leaders who are completely partnering with us to raise champion kids. If you need support and encouragement for anything you’re facing, please reach out to us. We’re with you all the way!