Haves and have nots

The pressure is building. Apparently "most girls in my class have a phone", "everyone's on Instagram", "it's going to be even worse in year 6 when everyone has a phone except me".

Our answer has been pretty consistent: "not until secondary school" and then, thinking about social media in particular, "those sites are meant to be for 13 plus".

I find it hard to believe that everyone does  have a phone at age ten (and actually these conversations started best part of a year ago). But, an unscientific straw poll of mums makes it clear that it is surprisingly common in this particular year 5 group, although less so in a nearby school in Wolverton. However, having a phone, ipod or tablet doesn't automatically mean access to social networking. Incidentally, for those that do have an Instagram account, I'm not sure if they have had to lie about their age when setting the account up and whether this has been endorsed by their parents or not.

I suspect that there are some children keeping very quiet when phones and social media are discussed. These kids probably face the harsh reality of parents struggling to get food on the table every day or to replace outgrown shoes, never mind having a spare phone to hand down. They have to make do with what they have in so many ways, a phone is one part of a much bigger aspirational dream not a sole item to focus on. Possibly. I haven't spoken to them to know how it feels, so perhaps a phone or access to Instagram is a massive deal to them too.

But, what I do know is that if you are being told by your peers that you have to get on Instagram to join in the class gossip, then you end up with a longing to be part of the crowd. It is yet one more situation where there is a divide between the haves and the have nots.

As a parent this puts you in a tough place.

Many of the kids on Instagram think they are protecting themselves by having private accounts, and certainly this cuts down some of the risks they are exposed to. However, there is no protection from what I see as problems with social media for adults, let alone inexperienced pre-teens.

For example, everyone is having a fantastic time at a party. Except you. You had been feeling a little flat about not having an invitation, but seeing who was there, including people you didn't even really think the host was friends with, and then fun photos they took, feeling a little flat turns into feeling absolutely gutted. Not a biggie? An emotional roller coaster for a sensitive child.

There are many other reasons why social media should be treated with caution: comparing how many followers you have with someone else; how much you expose yourself to negativity of the very worst kind (sickening comments lacking in any ounce of humanity from people hiding behind anonymity); exposure to sexualised content; addiction to being constantly stimulated and connected, forgetting to appreciate what else life has to offer.

Of course there are wonderful things about social media too: creativity, humour, connecting with friends across a distance, finding people with common interests.  You prevent access to all of that while you act in what you believe are the best interests of your child, because the dark side of social media is dark indeed. At the same time you know you are creating a different problem: preventing them from being in the 'in' crowd, turning them into a 'have not'. I do get that, I really do.

On the positive side, we've had lots of discussion about it and our parent-child relationship continues to develop as there is awareness of problems with either approach. While we are a 'have not' family when it comes to children with phones (and things like TVs in bedrooms), we are a 'have' family when it comes to books, dancing, pens and paper, and after school activities, not to mention cuddles and love.

For when push comes to shove, surely a loving home environment is the most important thing to provide for everyone in your household?

Whether your child is networked or not, I'm sure you will continue to want the best for them. We need to keep setting examples of the behaviour we hope them to follow. We need to make sure we are not constantly on devices ourselves, and above all teach them kindness and sensitivity to deal with difference - whether that is being denied access to social media by an interfering parent, responding to someone who isn't allowed the same freedoms, or being a have or have not in some other sphere of life.

The irony is that if you are reading this, you probably chanced upon a link I posted on Facebook or Twitter! I can now assure you that I am now about to go out with my daughter for some real life experience - probably getting wet as we walk into town, buying some new jazz shoes for her, a newspaper for me, and talking to each other. We may laugh, we may bicker, but we'll rub along together without needing to share pictures of it with the world.

A final word for any parents who haven't had to give social media much thought yet, there is an excellent review of some networking sites you may be personally unfamiliar with produced by the NSPCC: http://www.nspcc.org.uk/ShareAware