A 2012 survey by Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics found that 83 percent of parents believe that the benefits of social media use by children outweigh the potential risks. But while 68 percent of the parents surveyed felt that children under 13 should not be using social media, many of these same parents reportedly said that they let their own under-age-13 children use social media because their classmates were using it.
Children’s Mercy clinical psychologist Edward Christophersen said “Given the mind of an 8-, 10-, 12-, 13-year-old child, the risk-benefit ratio is unfavorable because they don’t understand the possible repercussions of it.” And once a child is granted permission to access Twitter, Facebook or other socials media, parents “should absolutely look over their children’s shoulders,” he said.
However, Elaine Heffner, a psychotherapist and author of “Good Enough Mothering,” warns that parents should be hesitant to monitor too much, and suggests that parents seek consent from the children for the monitoring. Excessive monitoring could be construed as similar to reading private diaries and journals. And if parents do this furtively it can destroy the trust between parents and their children. “The goal of every parent is to build up trust with their child,” said Heffner. “And it’s important for kids to feel they do have a sense of privacy and independence.”
Meanwhile, a recent Georgia appellate court ruling will likely encourage parents to increase such monitoring. In what marks a legal precedent on the issue of parental responsibility over their children’s online activity, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled last October in Boston v. Athearn that parents can be held liable for negligent supervision of their children’s social media activities.
The case was sparked by a seventh-grade student–Athearn–who constructed a false Facebook profile of a classmate–Boston–that was offensive and libelous. The Boston family filed suit against the Athearn parents for intentionally inflicting emotional distress by failing to supervise their minor child when he posted the false Facebook page, and then by failing to remove the defamatory content once it was discovered. In a decision partially overturning a trial court decision, the appellate court determined that the Athearns could be held liable for failing to supervise their son’s use of the computer and online media after they learned of the false Facebook profile posting, but that they could not be held liable for the original posting.
As the mother of two young children, and as a juvenile defense attorney, I will be following this issue closely as I weigh my own decisions on how to let my children safely navigate social media.