Teaching Kids to Navigate Social Media? It’s a Matter of Principle

Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff

I recently posted a quandary to my social media network and it was met with a strange silence. “What do you do,” I asked parents of middle school-aged children, “when someone posts a photo of your child on Instagram, despite your child asking the person not to?”

I didn’t get the usual flood of comments that advice queries on Facebook usually elicit, not from those who’d been in my shoes, anyway. The only direct message I got from a mom with a teenager was, “Good luck.” I was swimming upstream, she intimated when she ran into me on the sidewalk in town.

I understood.

But what if something is a matter of principle?

There’s not a parental control to enforce that kind of thing, is there? Honestly, I wouldn’t want one, although, in my fantasies I’ve invented an app that serves as friendly ethicist and advisor, helping all citizens of the digital world share content wisely.

Educational consultant Jen Cort recently reminded me that the current generation doesn’t differentiate between their online world and identity and the one we parents refer to as “real life”. You’ll sound as out of touch as a typing teacher with whiteout if you refer to their world in such binary terms.

This, for example is the wrong way to analyze the issue that concerned me: You wouldn’t post a photo of your friend in dance camp on your locker if she asked you not to, so why would you post it online?

Instead, the universal question should be: what is the consequence of sharing this picture?

For many of us, Facebook has been the network we know best, but that platform is quaint in comparison with the more invasive options on the horizon for our children. There is a device in the works right now that, in the name of promoting girls and coding, will also give them instant and wearable “light up” updates when a friend is near or has sent them a message. Where do the makers anticipate the girls will wear these digital and social charms?


Shortly after our Instagram incident, my daughter got a book at the library about the founders of the company, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. I glanced through the book when she was done and came away thinking about how small my parenting moments are in the context of startup success and the big money that follows.

Were Kevin and Mike thinking about the girl who didn’t want her leotard-clad frame and not-yet-polished ballet turns posted online for all to see? Were the makers of these new digital light-up charms thinking about the isolation of those not wearing them or the shame felt by those who don’t get lots of buzzing lights when popular girls walk into the classroom, or the fact that instead of listening to their math and science teachers, some girls might be staring at their wrists waiting for a signal?

Do the makers of technology have an obligation to anticipate all of the negative consequences of what they make?

They don’t. And they can’t.

But it leaves parents and schools in a “no-man’s land”. Who is in charge? Who says a device or app is good and developmentally appropriate? Some kids have cell phones and some do not. Some use social media, others do not. Some parents read and monitor their children’s interactions in-person and online and others do not.

And, as parents, we will rarely be ahead of our children when it comes to each new app or device that hits the scene. That is why it seems as important as ever to go back to the non-digital values that don’t change. In our Instagram circumstance, there is a simple idea that obviates a lot of other discussion: respect the privacy of others.

Trying to get ahead of the expanding universe of digital innovation is like racing to a black hole. I think that’s why some parents give up or why some grow wise but weary when newbies like me ask a question about privacy, social media and friendships.

When I am on the other side of middle school and high school and Instagram is as old-school as a landline, you can ask me how I’m doing sticking to my principles. Until then, they are the only operating system I know that doesn’t become obsolete.

In addition to sticking to fundamental principles, I found some practical strategies and sites to help me navigate:

  1. When you see your child is upset and feels powerless, it is time to listen, even if your first instinct is to quell her emotions.
  1. Reach out to the adult in charge. In our case, I called the camp director, who was responsive. The changes in technology (and younger ages of early adaptors) can catch administrators and teachers off guard, too.
  1. Stay engaged. I have found that the more I listen with my preteen to her music and the more I ask about the pop culture, the more she opens up about other things in her life.  
  1. Model good behavior. I ask my daughter for permission before I post a photo of her on Facebook. And I talk with her about the peer pressure we adults still feel and how I handle it.

And, I may not use Instagram, but I decided I needed to know about it and whatever else comes down the pike.  

Additional Resources

Common Sense MediaThis nonprofit site is a highly valuable and objective place for parents to learn about all sorts of media.

YouTubeJustLikeThat Teens vs. Adults on Instagram: You might shudder, you might laugh, you might take a cold hard look in the mirror, but watching this video will give you some insight into how a younger generations views adults.

This blog is part of our Smart Parents blog series and book, Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning in partnership with The Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information, please see our Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning page. To learn more, see:

Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff is a contributor to the book, Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning. Follow her @writeonsarah and http://www.writeonesarah.com

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1 Comment

Jen Cort

Sarah, I just came across this post and thank you for putting it out there, such a good thought prompt for parents and students. The challenges and joys of the amorphous boundaries between our physical and technological selves are plentiful. I think what it comes down to are helping kids (and adults) make decisions rather than have reactions. True making decisions is harder and takes more time but it limits the opportunities for long term negative consequences. Having reactions is quick, you see something you post it or comment on it without thinking but dramatically increases our changes of making mistakes. The irony is I found this post because I googled myself looking for an interview I gave and up came this blog. Please add me to future mailing lists for your important work.

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