Social media is just about everywhere. It’s in most ads, the products you buy, your TV screen, your computer – it’s even in your pocket. For those looking to link up with friends, relatives and peers, this is fantastic news. Connections are made easier than ever and long distance bonds aren’t as fragile as they were in the past. But for foster parents, who are first and foremost in charge of protecting their children from harm and providing for their basic needs, social media can present a difficult challenge.
On the one hand we can see that anonymity protects foster children from harm and that social media compromises anonymity. On the other, we understand that socializing is a basic need and that social media has become an integral part of how children and teens socialize. So how’s a foster parent to walk this fine line? With delicate, well-informed steps and with the child’s safety always in mind.
Foster Teens and Social Media: What Are the Upsides?
Socializing is indeed a basic need, and social media is a powerful tool that addresses this need. It can help a foster youth maintain connections to the friends and role models she makes as she moves through placements or returns to her biological parents’ care. It can lessen the pain of separation from siblings who may have been placed elsewhere.
Social media platforms can become arenas where foster youth seek out support, too – from fellow foster youth and other children and teens dealing with separation, anxiety, loss and depression, or even just fans of the same TV show, sport or hobby. Knowing that there are other people in the world who share her experience will go a long way toward showing your foster youth that her negative emotions are not always symptoms of innate problems or reasons to be ashamed. On the contrary, they can be valid responses to traumatizing environments and situations. Social media sites will allow your foster youth to express those feelings to others who can empathize and understand them.
Since no child can thrive in isolation – especially foster youth who often have histories of separation, and loss – using social media can be an easy way to maintain positive relationships and connections that help balance emotional health.
Foster Teens and Social Media: What Are the Dangers?
Of course, social media makes it just as easy to maintain negative relationships and connections. Children and teens learn through experimentation and testing the limits of what’s acceptable. In many cases, this can unexpectedly land them in toxic relationships where short term benefits – for example, trying to fit in by smoking a cigarette or giving in to unwanted sexual advances – can come at the cost of long term ones like physical and emotional health.
Removing your foster teen from these types of situations is no longer enough to protect her from the damage they can cause. With so many new technological avenues to choose from, she can just as easily chat with her toxic boyfriend or deceitful classmate from the comfort of her bedroom.
Foster Teens and Social Media: No Simple Solution
The truth is that it’s nearly impossible to keep a 24/7 watch over your foster youth and her social media use, and that’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with allowing her to make decisions about how she socializes so long as she’s aware of the consequences, she’s never in serious danger and you’re always available to help. Here are a few ways you can increase the likelihood that your foster child is using social media responsibly:
- Help your child or teen understand that posting on social media is the virtual equivalent of speaking in front of an auditorium of onlookers. That’s a powerful position – and with great power comes great responsibility.
- Make the auditorium of onlookers a bit less imposing with privacy settings. Limiting how your foster child can be found, who she can interact with and what she can see are all important aspects of responsible use.
- When possible, monitor usage. Keeping computers in a common family area is one way to do this. Making accounts of your own is another.
- Set house rules. They’ll probably vary depending on the youth’s age, experience with social media and degree of responsibility.
- Limit access. Studies show that spending too much time on social media can have an adverse effect on self-esteem. Just enough can have the opposite effect.
- Help your child understand cyberbullying. It’s not ok to be the victim or the perpetrator of this new phenomenon.
- Understand that mistakes will happen. Each one is a learning opportunity. Put your heads together and figure out how to move forward.
- When in doubt, talk to your caseworker.
The most important step toward responsible use is understanding how powerful of a tool social media can be. Help your foster teen understand that, while they can be fun and therapeutic, actions on social media sites, just like real life actions, can leave a lasting impression. It’s up to her to decide what sort of impression that will be.