Social media can be a great way for children to connect with friends or family members. It can also cause some uneasiness for parents who want to keep their children as safe as possible. Here are some challenges parents may face and strategies that may help.
Challenge: Being an effective gatekeeper. Kids can often be secretive. This makes it hard to “enforce” that your younger children must meet age (or other) requirements before they sign up for social media platforms. Getting older children to check in with you before they sign up for new social media accounts may be even tougher.
What you can try: Consider getting an Internet router with strict filters (or web filtering on smartphones) to prevent use of websites where children can view sexual content or be tricked into providing personal information. You may also want to restrict use of computers or digital devices to rooms where you are around most of the time—like the kitchen or the family room.
Challenge: Checking all privacy settings. Children are typically more trusting than adults. It can be difficult for them to understand why it is so important to preserve their privacy online. Keeping information private may also not be top-of-mind, especially if children are easily distracted.
What you can try: Before giving young children a digital device (or setting up their social media accounts) change their privacy settings to limit access to personal information. For older children, help them understand that this should always be their first step before engaging on new social media platforms. Show children of any age how to create a strong password and the importance of keeping it secret from their friends. Load reputable security software on all devices and demonstrate how to properly scan files. Explain that “free” downloads can contain dangerous malware.
Challenge: Setting good boundaries without scaring children. You know that your children should never reveal personal information as it can be dangerous to them and your family. But it can be difficult to help them understand that before they accept any new “friends” they should be sure that they are not actually strangers. Even photos a child posts may reveal location data, which means that anyone can see where the photo was taken (such as your home).
What you can try: Gently explain that not everyone online has your child’s best interests at heart. Encourage your children to come to you anytime anything makes them feel uneasy or uncomfortable. Try to be supportive if they make mistakes so they won’t be afraid talk to you.
Challenge: Helping children understand that social media is “forever.” Children often do not understand that everything they post online could one day be viewed by a potential employer, a spouse, neighbors, or new friends.
What you can try: Provide concrete examples of what is not appropriate to share, such as intimate information or provocative photos. Explain that even if a social media account is private, your child’s profile photo is still visible to everyone.
Challenge: Promoting kindness. Teaching children the importance of treating others with respect is an educational process that may require time, practice, and patience.
What you can try: Help children learn to always “pause before they post” to ensure they are building friends up instead of tearing them down. Explain that harsh words online can result in other children causing harm to themselves or others. Also encourage them to tell you right away if they are being cyberbullied themselves.
Challenge: Reinforcing your rules. Children may forget (or ignore) rules easily, which can cause some parents to become angry or frustrated.
What you can try: Review your rules several times over the course of a few days. Then ask your children to repeat back what the rules are. Try to be patient if it takes your children multiple attempts to learn your rules.
Challenge: Holding back on your social media posting. You may not even realize it, but your own social media posts could be revealing too much information that puts your children at risk. For example, innocently posting about heading to Susie’s dance class on Thursday night lets online predators know exactly when and where to find Susie.
What you can try: Avoid revealing where you are on your social media posts. The less you share about your routine activities and travel plans, the better. If you are going away for a long weekend with your spouse (or even out to dinner)—and leaving your kids at home with a babysitter—wait until after you are home to post your photos.
Helpful references and resources:
KidsHealth from Nemours. Teaching kids to be smart about social media. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/social-media-smarts.html.
Parent’s Guides [Link to: https://www.connectsafely.org/parentguides/] at connectsafely.org.
Federal Trade Commission. Protecting kids online. https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/topics/protecting-kids-online.