The uncle in question, Nick Bilton, is also a tech reporter for the New York Times, so he’s got a certain 30,000-foot perspective on social media that can be helpful to parents (because, even when writing commentaries, [good] reporters have been conditioned to represent things dispassionately, which is helpful in the tech-parenting space).
So with his nephew Luca in mind, Mr. Bilton puts social media into three buckets. He actually calls them “three social media doors that you can unlock for a child,” but that may be a little optimistic. It assumes parents start with social media locked away, and as soon as there are playdates at other kids’ houses, parents can’t assume social media are not locked away. Not unless the other kids have parents with the same rules and controls in place and the same level of vigilance, which can put a strain on playdate enjoyment (of course, if the objective is to encourage kids to go out and play where there’s no social media, then control and surveillance work well).
So about those social media buckets: Think apps. Because Bilton’s categories are really for thinking about social media the way kids use it, which is wherever they are and mostly mobile. The three categories or “doors” he proposes (I’ll add a fourth) are…
- The self-expression/self-presentation services/apps like Instagram, where you post stuff for people to like, retweet, comment, etc. He calls them “public sites,” but I think “public images sites” would be more accurate, because there are degrees of public-ness and pseudonymity, and I think the focus is more on self-expression, content curation and managing your public image.
- The in-the-moment social services/apps (often called “ephemeral media”), where the focus is on interaction right now and much less on content. In some, like Snapchat, the content disappears quickly; it’s not meant to be curated for public image management, which is why Snapchat’s so popular.
- The anonymous apps and services such as Ask.fm, Secret and Yik Yak. These
could be a subset of “Door No. 2,” because their focus is also in-the-moment. They’re all individual and a little different, but they’re also less one-on-one than Snapchat and Viber.
The fourth bucket I’d add is just as important:
- The interest-based social media services such as game apps. Examples are Clash of Clans and the just-released QuizFlick Jr, and I think some kids even still beat their parents at Angry Birds (see this clever dad’s piece on that in the New York Times when the app was all over the news). [To find currently popular or trending multiplayer game apps for kids in specific age ranges, go to Appcrawlr.com and on the upper-left side of the page, click on the “Filters” button so you can narrow your search. There’s also a black pull-down menu to the right of it where you pick your device type (e.g., Android phone, iPhone, iPad, etc.).]
The reason why I say that 4th category is important is not just because digital games are huge with kids but also because game elements such as quests, strategizing and collaborative play can add a protective element to digital spaces. They become communities of shared purpose, where mutual trust is needed to level up and rules are part of the challenge instead of something to be broken (see the properties of safety I wrote about here).
I agree with Bilton that “children have much to gain from being on social media.” Certainly their experiences in and with social media are not going to be all positive, but that’s because their and everybody’s social experiences in everyday life aren’t. It’s a mix. And because social media is the media of our time now and of their future, there’s little to gain from keeping them out of it. It’s like stunting their social development and – as I wrote in the sidebar under my post about social shaming – banning social media can put our kids at risk of social isolation and keep them from developing the resilience and social skills they need to navigate the digital parts of their social lives as much as the face-to-face parts.