So your child just got a learner’s permit. Do you just hand her the car keys and say, “Good luck”? Not likely. You will make sure she gets proper instruction, and you’ll spend hours in the passenger’s seat, helping her navigate the streets and highways of your town. There will be some close calls, some heated words, possibly even a fender-bender along the way, but in the end you hope to develop a responsible driver.
There’s a new step in the stairway to adulthood. At age 13 a young person becomes eligible for a Facebook account. That is, if he or she hasn’t come up with a fake birthday before that time. And Facebook certainly isn’t the only social media game in town. What’s a parent to do?
We know that Christian parenting means helping a child make responsible choices that reflect the life of someone who follows Christ. “Train up your child in the way that he should go” applies even in the virtual world.
We hear of young people coming to tragic ends after being bullied on Facebook by classmates. We also hear dire, and important, warnings about predators on Facebook. (Seriously, if you haven’t checked your child’s privacy settings by now, stop reading this and go straight to the computer.) But there are other implications for parents.
Yes, we need to teach kids safety on the Internet. And as parents of young teens, we can be proactive about that. For example, we can insist on having the password to our child’s Facebook account, as well as on being one of our child’s Facebook friends. Doing so keeps children aware of a parent’s supervision and allows parents the option of monitoring when necessary.
It might be even more important, though, to teach children how to be Christians online.
One big way parents can encourage Christ-like behavior online is by promoting inclusivity. This does not mean accepting any friend request that comes your child’s way. It means making sure that the people he or she has friended feel included.
There are specific ways to avoid excluding people. Posting status updates about who you spent the day with or who was at the party you just attended only points out to the uninvited that they are, in fact, the uninvited. Posting photos of a recent group outing to the mall lets everyone else know they were not in on the event (sometimes that may even be the intention).
On the other hand, if a child knows someone is having a hard time fitting in with the crowd, Facebook is a great opportunity to make that person feel included by commenting on his or her status updates and photos or by sending an encouraging message.
And then there’s the Facebook profile. Facebook and other sites allow users to list preferred activities, movies, books, music, and more. This provides a prime opportunity to talk to children about humility and honesty. If they list a bunch of things they know are popular but aren’t really their thing, they’re putting up a false front. This can continue with status updates that don’t reflect their real lives.
Facebook and the like allow people to portray themselves as other than they are, perhaps even post a disingenuous description of who they wish they were. While that can be tempting, it’s not true to the person God created us to be. It will not attract people who like us for who we are. And in the long run, most people can see through a false front anyway.
Like every aspect of life, the virtual world offers opportunities for Christian witness as well as pitfalls for making poor decisions. Don’t let your child head out into the great unknown without a map, compass, and good directions.