When I was in college, my friends and I drove several hours to visit another friend at a huge university. The trip was fraught with bad behavior, from distracted driving while singing too loudly to 90s grunge music to staying in an all guys dorm against the rules. My three friends and I had a blast that weekend but I can remember thinking during certain points of the weekend that my parents would drop dead if they saw me funneling beer at the frat party we attended.
Back then, I was able to get away with bad college decisions because social media wasn’t a thing. And, frankly, thank God.
My parents had to trust that they had armed me with the tools to be independent when I went off to college. Like it or not, they didn’t have access to what I was up to on a Saturday night and, unless I called home to give them a report, my four years at college were blissfully free of my parents’ prying eyes.
This is not to say that I was a wild, careless college kid. Not by any stretch but as I spread my wings in different situations throughout my college career, I learned to listen to the voice in my head that told me when things were getting too dangerous or I was about to make a bad choice.
It’s a gift I still rely on today, in fact.
And that’s why I don’t chase my teens all over social media.
In fact, aside from their phone passcodes, I don’t know any of their logon information.
And I’m fine with it. Really.
When my son was 13, we had a discussion about whether he was ready to join social media. At the time, he felt that he wasn’t all that interested in keeping up with his friends other than via text. We discussed the various ways teens communicated via social media apps and he decided that he’d hold off. Of course, that changed when he hit the halls of high school and joined Instagram.
But it was his choice, a choice he made when he felt ready to take on the responsibility of social media. We set ground rules and I let him go from there. I asked permission to follow his Instagram account and we agreed that we’d coexist peacefully on the same social media apps.
I don’t check his emails.
I don’t read his texts.
I don’t question what he posts on his Instagram page.
Because I want him to experience all aspects of social media so that he can form his own opinions about what makes him feel good, and bad, about sharing his personal information online.
Now, before you get your pitchforks out and tell me I’m a bad parent, let me clarify: we talk all the time about his online life. We discuss the pages he follows and the friends he interacts with on the various apps he uses. He shows me the videoes and funny memes he creates and finds on humor sites and we talk about politics and news stories he sees.
He talks, I listen.
I don’t judge.
And it’s resulted in a kid who comes to us when he sees his friends in trouble online and one who knows his boundaries.
He’s worked to build our trust online and he knows that if he abuses that trust, his online life will be over, much in the same way my parents would have hauled me home from college if I’d failed a semester from partying too much.
He has to find his way because I’m not always going to be there to whisper in his ear when it comes to his online choices.
And so we talk about everything he sees.
When he sees a girl he’s friends with post a racy picture of herself in a bathing suit, he talks to me about it. About how it makes him feel and what he’d do in the same situation.
When he sees a celebrity misbehaving on Twitter, we talk about the consequences of their actions. Words hurt, whether it’s 140 characters or statements made in a Facebook status. Words have meaning and he knows it.
When he is playing Minecraft or Fortnite, we discuss the strangers he may encounter and how to handle the interactions. I want him to develop his own “spidey sense” so that he can draw on those experiences when he heads off to college.
I want him to make good choices because they feel right to him inside, not because he’s afraid he’s going to get caught by his parents.
I want him to develop a sense of right and wrong, outside of my prying eyes, as much as possible. And, in this day and age of helicopter parenting and parents who invade every aspect of their kids’ lives, it’s hard to step back and let your kid make mistakes and learn from his missteps.
I’ve given my son freedom to develop his online presence with parameters that work for both of us. It’s my hope that by respecting his online privacy and giving him the space to develop a sense of community with online, I’ll be able to hold him close forever.
And maybe, someday, I’ll show him pictures of my weekend away with my college girlfriends. Maybe.