Why Boundaries Online Matter

boundaries online

I recently had the opportunity to share with a group of middle school parents about social media and app safety. Since social media and apps are constantly changing, we focused on key features that create risk in any app, such as inappropriate ads or location-identifying information. But among the most problematic issues that come up in just about every app are all tied to PRIVACY. And whenever you think about privacy… think about a word that permeates every human interaction you have—BOUNDARIES.

The Ugly Erosion of Boundaries

Millions of people watched the horrifying video trending in November of a mom verbally berating her young son and putting him out on the street for casting a mock vote for Donald Trump in his elementary school mock-election. Not only were her words abusive, but she filmed the entire escapade… and then she POSTED IT on Facebook. I don’t know if she originally posted it only to her circle of friends or to the free world—it doesn’t really matter… it ended up on YouTube. The video is hard to watch because of how she treats her son, but in addition to the disturbing content, another disgusting aspect is the fact that it is a massive invasion of that boy’s privacy. His mother made the choice to go public with the awful episode—he had no choice in the matter whatsoever. While his mother’s identity remains carefully concealed behind the camera, his face, and truthfully, his most TRAUMATIC CHILDHOOD MEMORY to date has been documented and spread all over the Internet. (I’m purposely not linking to this video in this post so as not to perpetuate the offense against this child).

This is one of the most troubling developments of the social media age… the erosion of boundaries. And it affects so many areas of our digital experience.

Privacy Settings

One of the first places boundaries intersect our social media lives has to do with privacy settings. Do your kids have private or public profiles on social media? Most platforms have privacy settings that prevent unwanted connection with strangers, offering some sort of approval process when someone wants to follow you. Yet, millions of teenagers (and even tweens!) have public profiles. Why? Possibly ignorance—maybe they don’t know how to change it or left it at default carelessly. Another theory supports my personal opinion: popularity. Having thousands of followers on Instagram is social currency in middle and high school. Forget that total strangers are now creeping on your every move, (which you religiously post). But, hey, you can’t drive that “following” number up with a private profile. So popularity wins over common sense.

But let’s say they do have private profiles. What are the risks? Do your kids vet those who request to follow them? Do you?

One of my personal convictions is that I don’t connect to people on my personal social media accounts that I don’t actually know in real life. If they are a colleague I haven’t met yet, and I feel like there’s a purpose behind connecting in this way, I may make the occasional exception, but I will purposely put them in an acquaintance “list” on Facebook, which allows me to exclude them from some of my more personal posts. It’s simply good old-fashioned boundaries, folks. If I don’t know you, I don’t tell you what I tell my actual friends. This is something I’ve talked to my kids about quite a bit. Who belongs in their inner circle, and what is appropriate to share with those who aren’t in that place of trusted friendship?

I don’t post pictures of my kids publicly, either. This is also a personal conviction, and I know many people who I admire and respect who don’t share it, which is fine. Here’s why I don’t. First, I want to be mindful of my kids’ digital footprints. I don’t know that their footprint is mine to create. (I was also challenged by Jan Foreman to ASK them if I could share about them on social media, which in turn sets a good example of how I hope they will be with others one day.)

Secondly, the moment pictures go public, they are up for grabs by anyone. When a young Seattle mom was horrifically murdered in April of 2016 by guy she met online, some ethically-challenged media outlets snagged the photos she had once publicly posted of her three children, all under 12 years old, for their news reports. Losing a parent in a violent crime is traumatic enough… let the kids grieve without the world gawking at them. (Thankfully, it appears those web sites eventually removed the kids’ pictures from the news story page).

On top of these concerns, in a world that has turned so hateful on social media, I certainly don’t want my kids’ photos to ever be inappropriately used without my—or their—permission.

Real-Life Consequences

Let’s remember that the teenage brain is still developing the frontal lobe, which is responsible for linking risk, behavior, and consequences. So it makes sense that teens often don’t understand the real-life consequences attached to their online choices. Heck, even very smart and successful adults miss this connection as well. In the days after the presidential election, Matt Harrigan, former CEO of network security firm PacketSled, was forced to resign over his social media posts about wanting to kill Donald Trump. He defended himself by saying, “My recent Facebook comment was intended to be a joke, in the context of a larger conversation, and only privately shared as such.” However, plenty of people took screenshots of that “private” conversation and forwarded them on to his company executives, who did not find them funny in the least.

Other consequences that occur regularly? You have your unfortunate situations like losing jobs and college scholarships over careless social media posts, but you also have the tragic. The names and faces representing lives lost to suicide over cyberbullying are so numerous that they can seem to blend together. This should not be. This is a horrifying reality for too many families.

Boundaries. People say things online they just shouldn’t say. We have forgotten the prudence of this ancient proverb: He who holds his tongue is considered wise. We must remember that the world is not asking for us to document every opinion publicly. And when opinions are emotional, we must be exceptionally careful. If you’re vexed by your emotions, perhaps you should talk to a counselor or close friend, not the Twitterverse. Unfortunately, ranting and spewing online is so commonplace that young people have learned by observation to air every grievance. (Another reason why 13-year-olds should not be on social media… but I digress.)

The Bottom Line

No kid is “a natural” at using boundaries. This is a skill that must be learned (and as we see all the time, many adults are still learning as well!). Let’s be deliberate in training our kids to understand these important aspects of boundaries in the digital age:

  1. Safe people online

  2. Safe places online

  3. Safe ways to communicate online

  4. Respect

Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, who have written an extensive library of books on boundaries wrote the following in Boundaries with Kids. “Parents in their role as guardian keep the child safe, growing, and healthy. More often than not they use boundaries to perform this function. They set limits to freedom and then enforce them for the child’s protection. Through this process, the child internalizes the limits as wisdom and slowly begins to be able to take care of herself.” And a summation of boundaries as a concept: “Boundaries are the bedrock of good relationships, maturity, safety, and growth for your children and you.”

The bottom line is that in order for our kids to learn boundaries online, we have to model and set boundaries as parents and leaders. There is no other way.

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