Interactive media define the social worlds of many children and most youth today. Because the youngest generation is always on the forefront of new modes of communication, kids may inhabit a social landscape that is a little (or a lot) unfamiliar to parents and caregivers. In this session, participants will gain confidence to help their children navigate social media, even when they themselves cannot be sure of the way.
Parent and caregiver fears for the sexual safety and health of children and youth on the Internet are similar to their fears about sexual activity, unplanned pregnancy, sexual abuse, and STIs. Some fears are warranted, but many are exaggerated. This session helps parents and caregivers understand why social media is important to young people. Rather than unpack the confusion of devices, platforms, and apps, it invites adults to view social media as an arena that offers children and youth opportunities to learn how to behave thoughtfully, considerately, and respectfully.
Parents and caregivers bring a range of attitudes toward social media. Honor each person’s personal preference. Encourage participants to talk with children and youth about social media. Do not insist that parents and caregivers need to engage with the many and varied platforms themselves.
- Chalice, candle, and lighter or LED candle
- Newsprint, markers, and tape
- Computer with Internet access and a projector
- Covenant on newsprint sheet, from Session 1
- Journals or paper, and pencils and pens
- Handout 2.1, Circles of Sexuality
- Handout 9.1, Recommended Multimedia Resources
- Copies of Family Media Agreement and Device Contracts from Common Sense Media
- Explore the Recommended Multimedia Resources handout for this session. Update any links as needed. Expand the handout to include local resources. You may email the handout to participants prior to the session, plan to visit recommended websites during the session (this will extend your meeting time), or copy the handout to distribute in the session.
- Copy Handout 2.1, Circles of Sexuality, for all participants.
- Download, print, and copy for all participants the Family Media Agreements and Device Contracts available from Common Sense Media.
- Preview the video The Problem with Parents, Kids, and Social Media (2:53), an episode of Home School, The Atlantic’s animated video series about parenting, narrated by Ana Homayoun, author of Social Media Wellness (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2017).
- Set up the computer, test the Internet connection in your meeting space, and cue up the video.
- Post the group covenant.
- Write the Focused Check-in prompt on newsprint and post it.
- Write the Spotlight questions on newsprint and post them.
- Write the Reflection questions on newsprint and set them aside.
Opening (5 minutes)
Welcome participants. If any are new, briefly review the posted covenant, answer any questions about it, and invite a quick round of name introductions.
Say that this session’s topic is social media. Invite the group to call out a few online “places” where they or their children interact socially with others. Prompt with a few different technologies, such as texting and video conferencing, and the names of some specific apps and platforms, such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Instagram.
Invite a participant to light the chalice while you read this blessing, excerpted from one by the Rev. Maureen Killeran that is posted on the UUA’s WorshipWeb:
Here, in this space, we are called to weave the web of human community.
Focused Check-In (10 minutes)
Lead the participants in taking a deep breath together. Repeat the chalice lighting words:
Here, in this space, we are called to weave the web of human community.
Invite the group to sit in silence, taking in the words just spoken. Then ask everyone to reflect on and then, if they wish, share how they might complete this sentence: “One way I worry that social media could harm my child is _____.”
Invite participants to respond briefly, as they are ready. It is okay to have some silence while participants think about the question. Make sure each one has an opportunity to speak, or to pass.
Spotlight (10 minutes)
Distribute the Circles of Sexuality graphic. Remind the group that as children get older, relationships matter to them more and more. The health of their sexual life will be intertwined with the health of their social life. Say that social media opens a world of communities where their child can practice healthy sexual behaviors. Ask participants to consider these questions silently for a moment:
- How do you want your children to behave in online communities?
- How can you support children and youth to be their best selves online as well as in direct face-to-face connection?
Introduce the Spotlight video by asking participants to think about how they use social media in their own lives. Invite them to collect their own feelings, experiences, and beliefs about the Internet, social media, and practices like “sexting” (sending or exchanging sexually explicit messages or images via text or the Internet).
Show “The Problem with Parents, Kids and Social Media,” an animated video narrated by Ana Homayoun. When it concludes, invite the group to share a minute or two of silence and then to journal, as they are moved, with any responses that have come up.
Perspectives (25 minutes)
Post a blank piece of newsprint and ask participants to call out the names of all the social media sites, platforms, and apps they can think of where people get together online. Prompt with the examples participants mentioned during the opening. Write down all the ones that are named. When the list is finished, ask participants to think of the ones they have profiles or accounts on, regardless of how often they access them. Then ask them to count how many they access at least weekly, and call out their names. On the newsprint, circle or star the ones that are called out.
Now ask which social media sites, apps, and platforms they believe their children or youth have profiles on. How often do they think their children use these sites? Allow participants to respond, popcorn style. Use a different color to circle or star the ones they say their children and youth use frequently, and note any patterns without making any judgments. (For example, you might say, “Many of us are familiar with Facebook” or “It seems Facebook appeals to adults more than kids.” Do not say, “Wow, that’s a lot of time spent on Facebook!”)
Explain that social media trends are peer-dependent and always evolving. One group of friends might prefer one social media platform, while another group communicates on another, and the social media habits of a peer group can change over a few weeks or even a few days.
Ask if participants know of the online game Club Penguin. Explain, as needed, that it was an interactive social game for children ages 6-14 that was available from 2005 to 2017. Club Penguin members could meet and greet one another as penguin avatars in a virtual cartoon world. The virtual chatting was kept safe by automated filters that prevented certain types of content (such as swear words) from being posted, adult moderators who monitored the game, and an "Ultimate Safe Chat" mode that required users to pick pre-written comments from a menu rather than being able to type whatever they wanted to say. Children could only join after a parent had given permission by email.
Each player got a penguin avatar, an igloo to be its home, and the ability to roam the digital winter world of the game. Using in-game currency (bought by parents or earned within the game by the player’s actions), players could buy clothes for their penguin, decorations for their igloo, and other items. They could visit other players’ igloos and gather at virtual concerts and parties. At its high point, Club Penguin had more than 200 million registered user accounts. Ask participants to consider why it was so popular. What did children get out of Club Penguin? Why were they attracted to it? Invite them to answer based on either personal experience or speculation.
Point out that as children get older, they are likely to want a social life on social media. They will have access to platforms that lack the safety features of Club Penguin. As with other aspects of sexual health, an adult has limited power to protect their child, but can strive to raise an aware, well-informed decision maker who can protect themselves.
Read these quotes from youth in an Our Whole Lives program for grades 7–9:
From a 14-year-old: “Sometimes I wish adults wouldn’t be so threatened [by social media]. My dad doesn’t want me to get a Tumblr because he thinks it’s only for porn.”
From a 14-year-old: “I don’t really use social media much but I haven’t actually heard of actual horror stories from people and it seems to be fun and a good way to spread information. But like anything if it’s used too much it can take away from friends and family.”
From a 14-year-old: “I wish [my parents] knew that we use [social media] to talk to our friends. Not that it’s only bad.”
From a 13-year-old: “Social media is stupid.”
Tell participants that danah boyd, an Internet scholar, names four aspects of digital media that users of all ages must understand in order to use it safely:
- Persistence: the durability of online expressions and content
- Visibility: the potential audience who can bear witness
- Spreadability: the ease with which content can be shared
- Searchability: the ease with which content can be found
Say that the next reading suggests a caring adult’s role. Read the following, also from danah boyd, in a Time Magazine op-ed, Let Kids Run Wild Online (March 13, 2014):
Rather than helping teens develop strategies for negotiating public life and the potential risks of interacting with others, fearful parents have focused on tracking, monitoring and blocking. These tactics don’t help teens develop the skills they need to manage complex social situations, assess risks and get help when they’re in trouble. Banning cell phones won’t stop a teen who’s in love [or help them] cope with the messy dynamics of sexting. . . .
The key to helping youth navigate contemporary digital life isn’t more restrictions. It’s freedom—plus communication. Famed urban theorist Jane Jacobs used to argue that the safest neighborhoods were those where communities collectively took interest in and paid attention to what happened on the streets. Safety didn’t come from surveillance cameras or keeping everyone indoors but from a collective willingness to watch out for one another and be present as people struggled. The same is true online.
What makes the digital street safe is when teens and adults collectively agree to open their eyes and pay attention, communicate and collaboratively negotiate difficult situations. Teens need the freedom to wander the digital street, but they also need to know that caring adults are behind them and supporting them wherever they go. The first step is to turn off the tracking software. Then ask your kids what they’re doing when they’re online–and why it’s so important to them.
Ask whether participants have talked with their children or youth about how they use social media. Have they talked, or how ready do they feel to talk, with children about online safety?
Point out that, through middle-school age, it is widely recommended that parents and caregivers be attentive to their children’s social media presence and guide them to utilize privacy settings, avoid disclosing personal information, and stay off websites that are intended for adults only. Mention that middle-schoolers and younger children may not understand why it is not safe to share private information with “friends” they only know online.
Reflection (25 minutes)
Invite participants to consider the video, the Circles of Sexuality chart, and the Perspectives readings. You may offer all of the following questions for reflection or choose one or two you think speak especially to the group and will encourage deep reflection and sharing. Post the Reflection questions and read them aloud.
Invite participants to respond, one at a time, as they are moved. Say that everyone will have a chance to speak (or pass), without interruption, before anyone speaks for a second time. Suggest an amount of time each person may speak. Read aloud the questions you have chosen:
- What mistakes or harm have you witnessed on social media? How have adults dealt with these? (Respect confidentiality; share aloud only stories that are yours to share.)
- Do you agree that communication will be more helpful than control, in helping your children develop healthy behaviors and stay safe online? Why, or why not?
- How often do you have conversations with your children about social media? What are those conversations about?
- When and how might you talk with your child or youth about how in-person conversations and relationships differ from those that exist only online?
- What if family rules differ from local or state laws governing children’s presence on and use of social media? From rules set by other families? From the rules of a platform or app?
Taking It Home (10 minutes)
Explain that clear communication between adults and the children in their care is a wonderful practice to foster safe and healthy use of social media. Say that you will ask the group to consider some tools and topics for their family communication.
Distribute copies of the Family Media Agreement and Device Contract from Common Sense Media. Point out the sections for elementary, middle, and high school. Allow participants a few minutes to scan the document. Then pose these questions:
- What do you like about the sample contracts?
- What ideas can you take home to help you prepare and support children’s and youth’s use of social media?
Invite people to respond as they are moved. If you have time after all who wish to have spoken, invite them to journal, or to talk with a partner if they prefer, to shape their “take home” learning into an action they can commit to.
Provide a couple of minutes for everyone to answer, in writing:
- What promise can you make now for something you will do, between now and our next meeting, to promote your child’s healthy use of social media?
Closing (5 minutes)
Share this closing reading from the Common Sense Media website:
As kids begin to use tools such as Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and even YouTube in earnest, they’re learning the responsibility that comes with the power to broadcast to the world. You can help nurture the positive aspects by accepting how important social media is for kids and helping them find ways for it to add real value to their lives.
Invite a participant to extinguish the chalice. Thank the group for their participation. If you haven’t done so yet, distribute Handout 9.1, Recommended Multimedia Resources, for participants to take home. Remind the group of the day, time, and place of the next session.