People are seen as silhouettes as they check mobile devices in London on Dec. 23, 2015.
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June 9, 2017 5:01 PM EDT
Dr. Lapointe is a registered psychologist, mother and author of Discipline Without Damage: How To Get Your Kids To Behave Without Messing Them Up.

With the recent revoking by Harvard of acceptance offers to 10 students who posted inappropriate and offensive memes online, the spotlight is landing once again on what has become the parenting trifecta of contemporary times: consequences associated with actions, social media civility and the invasion of screens more generally in our children’s lives.

Our children will be “held” accountable very naturally for many of their actions and behaviors just by being in and of the world. Just like how if you don’t wear a jacket when it is freezing outside you will be cold, now if you project offensive, racist, sexist, aggressive or otherwise inappropriate or insensitive information in the social media world, it turns out you might not get into your chosen post-secondary institution, may lose out on a potential job interview or even be fired from a job you currently hold.

In light of the very serious consequence being exacted in the case of these 10 Harvard hopefuls, how do parents act on this for our children so it doesn’t derail them later? Are harsh and swift consequences the answer? How do we teach our children about responsible membership in the social-media realm? And what really is our role as parents in ensuring that screens and social media do not “ruin” our children — and trash their college futures?

There are many layers to understanding this. But to begin we must make sense of why social media becomes this unfortunate place of “lapse” between what our children know is right and what they actually end up posting. Social media is the intoxicatingly enticing world of relational connection that has invaded our culture. In order to thrive as human beings, we needed to be in a strong and solid relational space with the key people in our lives. As the technology revolution has swiftly taken hold in the last 25 years, we missed the central issue: since our most basic need as a social species is connection with each other, we will unfortunately twist our online world into another opportunity — however watered-down and superficial — to connect with one another.

Enter social media. We can’t get enough of it because it gives us these instant “hits” of that social connectivity we quite literally need. The problem is that it will never fully satiate our need because those hits all occur at a superficial level. And worse, these constant superficial hits inhibit our longing for deeper, more meaningful connections. Kind of like having dessert first – you are no longer interested in the healthy meal that would be face-to-face interactions with the key people in your life. Essentially, the more we attach to screens and social media, the more we end up detaching from each other.

As you get sucked into the vortex of seeking the next hit — the next “like” — you can begin to see your behavior and thought regress into superficial levels of connection. The superficial relationships that social media creates are not about connecting in ways that have you feeling truly loved and truly known. Rather, they will be all about superficial connection, including connecting through similarity (a common ground that unites us), connecting through belonging or loyalty or connecting through feeling as though we matter.

As we drive at the next hit, it becomes very clear how “same as” and “belonging” and “I want to matter” has our kids lapsing into behavior that is not at all consistent with the values and norms we thought we raised them with. This is exactly how the Harvard chat room deteriorated into the posting of such horrible messages. It was all about connection — and it all went horribly wrong because it was superficial and intoxicating and motivated by the true need that should have been “fed” more deeply via real relational connection.

So, what is a parent to do? The first step is to realize how dangerous social media is for our kids because of the very real threat it creates in the establishment of meaningful relationships that will actually tend to our deep needs for relational connection. As such, parents should protect their children from social media until it is very clear that the child is mature enough — likely in the adolescent period — to manage the superficiality of that world and otherwise has a plentiful supply of real connection happening in real face-to-face relationships. And when you decide your child is old enough and mature enough, continue to exact structure and limits around social media access including monitoring of accounts to ensure emotional safety.

The second step has to do with inculcating in our children a very solid understanding of social media civility — alongside all the other social norms, values and expectations we are charged with instilling in our children — so that they can be functional and contributing members of our society. Talk with your children about the online community — its advantages and disadvantages. Highlight for them that, while it allows us to have interesting connections where we might otherwise have not, this cannot replace real relational connectivity. Also, focus your children on how they would act in face-to-face interactions and that their online behavior must emulate these same social niceties. Teach them “that which has been posted cannot be unposted.” Once they press “publish,” “send” or “post,” it is out there — perhaps permanently — no matter what anyone promises them to the contrary.

Finally, we need to be informed and to be active in the online community alongside our children. Be on the social media apps that they are also on. Follow along with them so you can be in the know. Not secretly — very openly! When we can have presence and “expert” status with them in that community, we can step capably into the lead of guiding them through the potential pitfalls of the social media world. When your child sees you as confident and full of swagger in this way, they will be much more likely to heed your warnings, do your bidding and become responsible, safe members of their own developing online community.

And if it happens that your child messes up and gets involved in the posting of something contrary to what you deem acceptable, should you jump in and consequence? The reality here is that there will be consequences to those actions already. As we understand why kids mess up in the social media world — because of the superficiality of the connection they are driving after — it becomes apparent that the consequence to be born here is actually something we as adults must own. It is our consequence. We need to be on it for our kids. And if it isn’t working out for our children, then we need to get more on it.

So if your child is struggling with social media behavior, they don’t need more struggle introduced by way of imposed consequences on top of the natural consequences that will already be playing out. Rather, you step in and take it on. You realize that you needed to supervise more closely, have structure in your home such that screens are out only in the open family space and only during certain times of the day. You own that it is perhaps time for a screen holiday so that baselines can be reset. And you take on a more focused role in ensuring your children understand the social media world and your expectations of them in that world. It’s on you to be on this.

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