If you’ve been following us for any amount of time, you probably know that we have very intentionally slowed/delayed every threshold of technology access for our two boys, including allowing smartphones and social media. Our oldest son was even featured in the MIT Technology Review based on his lack of technology access (this was newsworthy, it seems). It’s not an easy road when your parents study social media and tech addiction dangers, but our boys have handled it reasonably well, all things considered.
While every family has to follow their own convictions about when phones and social media are allowed, we knew that we would opt to wait for these milestones until they might have a positive or helpful purpose in our kids’ lives. Can technology be used as a tool instead of a toy? Absolutely. We just had to help our boys develop enough patience to wait until the right season so they could see that for themselves. Once the need for a certain technology outweighed the desire, we knew we were getting close.
This summer, at age 17, our oldest son stepped into a leadership role with a community-wide youth organization that brought with it the need to easily spread the word about events to classmates and other teens. We could finally see a purpose for social media being added to the phone he received just two years prior, and his petitions for adding this new layer of connection did indeed make sense. But we didn’t just download it right away. Here are some important steps we took as we began to explore the potential of social media.
Steps to Take While Evaluating the Possibility of Introducing Social Media
We sought wisdom from other parents whose kids we respected and who had already transitioned to social media. We wanted to understand how their experience has gone and get wisdom from them.
We prayed! Depending on your personal beliefs, you may not look at the issue of technology and parenting through a spiritual lens. As Christian parents, we most certainly do. We rely on the Lord for guidance in parenting matters big and small—and this one was BIG.
We discussed which social media platform would solve his concern of being able to be more connected with classmates, while still taking into account our concerns for being manageable unto monitoring, safety, and training. For a number of reasons, we landed on Instagram.
We asked our son to talk to 3 young adult men he respects about how they have navigated Instagram and what kinds of safeguards they have in place, even as adults. Their input was invaluable.
Once it was determined that we would indeed move forward with social media, we talked with our son about our expectations, and we wrote them out so he could ask questions and get clarity. Then we prayed together and *gulp* downloaded Instagram. Here are some of the steps we took to add layers of safety and accountability.
Safety Steps for Taking the Plunge
We talked about a user name and bio, sharing our input about what NOT to include, and leaving it up to him for the final say. He chose wisely.
We went through his privacy and DM settings to minimize the risk of “rando” messages with porn links etc. (This blog post has all the info on the setting options available.) So far, so good… haven’t seen DMs or porn spam from any weird accounts.
We added his profile to our own, on my phone, so we could spot-check it whenever needed. This feature is available within Instagram’s settings, and I can’t stress how helpful it has been. We’ve been able to catch a couple of risky followers he didn’t actually know, and get a feel for what kind of content his “interests” deliver to him. I also go in every once in a while and help reinforce his “explore” algorithm by liking or searching for things that are basically wholesome — shoes, cars, colleges (IG puts things in your explore page they think you’ll like based on your activity). I do a spot check on the explore page every few days and that activity definitely shapes what is seen there (if your kids are seeing trashy stuff, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve searched for it, it seems to be somewhat of a default… Try following some cute dog accounts every now and again, and click “not interested” on the trash posts to clean it up).
We linked his profile to our Bark account. Bark is a technology system that monitors social media activity and alerts us to problematic posts, including images, videos, and captions. It looks for signals of suicide, self-harm, depression, sexual activity, drugs, violence, cyberbullying and more. Spoiler alert: Apple doesn’t let them monitor much on iPhone inside Instagram, just posts and captions; and teens are more likely to use stories than the old-school post. If we used Android phones, Bark would be able to monitor direct messages and the search feature as well. See what Bark monitors.
We set time restrictions using Apple’s Screen Time settings. This was one of the common themes from the young adults he talked to (thanks, gentlemen!). It helped our son to know grown men have to limit themselves as well. At first, in the finding and following stage, a good bit of time was needed. Then we pared it back. On busy event days, more time might be needed for getting the word out. When homework is not done, less time is allowed. We try to be flexible, as it does indeed seem to be a primary way students communicate with one another (unless you’re in each other’s phones; thankfully, he has a strong group of a dozen or more friends that still text AND call). If he runs out of time, he can request 15 more minutes through iOS Screentime features, and I can grant it immediately although it’s a chronological extension. So if he only uses one minute and the phone goes in his pocket, the extension will still expire in 15 minutes.
We talk. A lot. About Instagram. It’s not an easy step to add social media in, I’ll be honest. It’s brought up some challenging situations and we’ve had to collaborate on solutions. He’s come up with ways to solve problems that have been really insightful (like not being on it when he’s alone). We tell parents all the time is that it’s one thing to know when your kid is ready for social media, but you need to know as a parent that YOU are ready to take on another level of oversight, leadership, and involvement.
One thing is for sure, we are SO GLAD we waited this long. In the years before allowing social media, we had time for lots of training. We had already navigated lots of “closed course” texting fiascos with good friends, we had already completed the transition to a more independent schedule of having a licensed teen driver, and we had already started thinking about college to give more weight to the digital footprint implications. The stage we are in is setting him on a runway to launch him into adulthood and he feels it as much as we do. There’s sobriety in that, there’s gratitude, and there’s a greater respect for the pitfalls of getting sucked into social media. The guardrails will come off in the not-too-distant future, but this season will be intentional and filled with valuable lessons.
There are many different kinds of kids and many different strategies for families, but this is the path we’ve gone. It lines up with a recent NY Times article that laid out a similar pattern of gradual introduction (instead of phone and social media getting handed to a 12-year-old all in one swoop). If you find yourself in a season where social media might be the next step, we hope our story will be helpful for you to consider what safeguards you might need.