As many parents and grandparents attended high school and college graduations, we didn't hear a lot about one of the most important milestones of all: when our little people are making the big step into middle school. In today’s digital world, it's never been more challenging for both parents whose kids have barely hit the double digits.
The principal of my granddaughter's elementary school gave her graduating fifth-graders some excellent advice to prepare them for middle school — such as, always smile at people, brush your teeth (hygiene is important, she noted), don't sit in the back of the bus (sit in the middle), reach out to new students, and make new friends. But it was this message that resonated most and made me realize we're not in Kansas anymore — what goes online stays online.
When we consider the majority of these students are 10- and 11-year-olds (and that the average age for getting a first cell phone is 10), this is probably one of the most valuable lessons these kids need going forward. Although most social media platforms require users to be at least 13 years old to use them, many are already using social media anyway, and at the very least are likely digitally connected through texting and group chats.
“Having taught middle school for eight years I can tell you that this is, hands down, the most challenging age when it comes to digital issues,” says Diana Graber, founder and teacher of Cyber Civics. “Kids will say that all their friends are online, and parents will give in to their pleas to get online too, without equipping them with the digital smarts they need to make wise decisions in a place that remembers everything they say or do.”
Sometimes kids need these lessons before middle school too, for example, one mom was shocked when her third-grade daughter told her about a group chat on that included nearly a dozen classmates. When she begged to be part of it, with apprehension, this mother allowed her to join. But she also had a conversation with her daughter about how just because this is online, there's no excuse for meanness. Nevertheless, as the group of friends (mostly girls) were chatting, two of the girls posted "YAY" after a particular boy left the group, revealing their happiness that he was gone. Although this wasn't directed at the young boy (hopefully he didn't read it), it was definitely not being nice and it needed to be pointed out so it didn't happen again or escalate later on social media platforms.
There's no app for that.
It's time for parents to stop thinking they will never catch up with their kids when it comes to technology. We may never be as cyber-savvy as our teenager or even our younger children, but parenting isn't about how many apps you know, but rather being interested in learning about them and becoming involved in your child's life in general. Giving your child the wisdom and confidence to make good choices when you're not with them is an important part of parenting, and this includes teaching them how to navigate big people decisions on the virtual playground.
There's no rewind online, the principal at my granddaughter's school gave kids a message they will use for the rest of their lives. Social media is evolving every day — it's a wonderful tool that can connect us to friends and family, help us network with potential colleges and employers, and even build new relationships. Like learning math, science, history and English, learning digital literacy is imperative to have a healthy relationship with the internet.
Thank you to this principal and all of those adults who send our young people to the next step prepared for what is an inevitable part of the landscape our newly digital society.