This is Part 19 in a multi-week series of blogs focused on the ABC’s for Healthy Kids. Learn more at www.snohd.org/healthykids.
Top Three Take-Aways:
- Make some decisions about rules and expectations for social media use before your kid makes their first account.
- Take time to learn about the platforms they use and how to stay safe.
- Keep an open conversation with your kids about social media, and make sure they know to bring concerns to an adult they trust.
The online landscape is constantly changing. Social media platforms that were popular only a few years ago may already be catering to an older demographic, while younger users gravitate to new options.
There are key decisions you need to make in your household before children start using social media, including:
- At what age are you OK with your child using social media?
- What platforms are appropriate? To help decide this, consider getting your own account so you can understand how the platform is used and what protections are (or are not) in place for younger users. Be sure to review privacy settings, age restrictions, and the fine print in the sign-up process.
- When and how often can they be on their smartphones or other devices? For example, a good practice is to have them leave phones or tablets outside of their bedroom at night. This helps with healthier sleep routines, and to prevent poor middle-of-the-night decisions on posting or messaging.
- How will you as a parent choose to engage with your child’s online presence? Do you want to “follow” or “friend” them on any platforms they use? Will you require that they allow you full access to their account up until a certain age and, if so, at what age will you no longer require access? Until what age will they need your permission to download new apps to their phone or tablet?
When your child gets access to their first device with internet, whether it is a shared family computer or a personal phone, enable safety features and parent controls. Even before social media becomes an option, parent controls are useful for things like allowing learning applications for young children while not allowing them to get online for anything outside of approved apps. This can help prevent them from being exposed to adult content as well as keep them from spending money on questionable in-app purchases or scams.
One way to make sure you and your child are on the same page about social media use is to have a written agreement. It leaves less room for misunderstandings and helps remind you to go over all the key information you want to before they ever set up their first account.
Not sure where to start on a social media contract? There’s one available here that you can use or modify to fit your needs.
Before you make these decisions, you may need to do some homework.
Take some time to learn about the social media apps that are popular with your child’s age group, as well as what audience those platforms cater to. Some may be focused on an online gaming audience, while others appeal for photo-sharing, videos and music, or DIY fashion or food.
You may not be able to keep up with all the changing platforms, but at minimum you should know what apps your child or teen uses on their phone or other devices. Read up on those apps, including age limits, privacy settings, and reviews. You can find a brief overview of social media with this week’s ABC’s for Healthy Kids activities, but no single summary covers it all. There are many more resources online to dive into the details of specific apps.
Social media can be a good tool for young people. Being able to get information on school and community events or to keep in touch with friends over summer vacation are positive uses.
However, there are risks. Three must-ask questions before your child begins using social media are:
- Do you and your child understand the privacy settings of the apps they use? Remember that privacy settings can change when platforms update, so check back frequently.
- Have you talked to them about not sharing details with strangers over the internet, and never posting personal information on public platforms, such as their schedule, phone number or home address?
- Are they aware that any photos, videos or other content they post should be considered permanent and potentially public? Even with privacy settings, people can take screen grabs of a post. And even if you delete something, it should be assumed that what goes out on the internet never fully goes away.
Learn what’s happening in your community. Talk with other parents, caregivers, educators, coaches – people you trust and who have a sense of how your child’s peers may be engaging in social media. You might learn about good places for your child to interact with their peers online, as well as platforms to have your family avoid due to potentially harmful content.
Finally, pay attention, be mindful and ask questions of your child once they begin using social media. When and how are they using it? Do they feel safe? Do they understand the consequences of their decisions online? They may feel anonymous or insulated when they are at home typing something on their phone, but their online interactions can have real-world ramifications.
Keep the conversation open
Your child should always be able to talk to you about what they see and do on social media. Don’t get mad at them for little mistakes – by giving them a safe space to talk things through, you can prevent much bigger online problems.
Help them fact check information they see online. Bad information can be more damaging than they realize. Encourage your kids to ask themselves where the information came from originally and whether it can be backed up by reliable sources.
Make sure they know to bring anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe to a trusted adult. Emphasize that things said online are not harmless and don’t always stay online-only. They should tell an adult about anything that makes them worry for someone’s safety. This could include posts and messages about someone harming themselves or others, or in which someone is being bullied, belittled, or threatened.
Remember that kids may be confident in using technology and navigating the internet, but that doesn’t mean they have the know-how to recognize potential pitfalls. Even if you are not an expert on social media, you can help them learn to pause and really think about their decisions.
If you wouldn’t want your child to do something in-person, you should talk to them about not doing it online, either. Would you be comfortable if they told a stranger personal details, or spent time alone with someone whose age and background were unknown? Would you want them to use rude or hurtful language, or spread harmful rumors and bad information? Would you be OK if they were showing people a photo of a friend or family member who didn’t know the photo was being shared? If the answer is “no” for in-person interactions, it should be the same online.
Be ready to adjust rules and expectations over time. How a senior in high school handles social media is different than a middle-schooler with their first account. Many popular platforms have a minimum age of 13. Stay engaged with younger teens as they begin using social media so that they can learn to use it safely and thoughtfully.
As they become more independent, conversations may get harder to have. Older teens often don’t want their parents involved in their online life.
It’s crucial to talk openly and honestly with them. Avoid tracking their social media on the sly –snooping damages trust and hopefully won’t be necessary if you’ve set clear expectations and talk often.
Finally, always leave time to listen. You can’t understand the dynamic of young people and how they use social media without listening to them. They’ll see benefits and risks you never considered.
If nothing else, make sure your child or teen can take concerns or question about social media to a trusted adult. It could make a big difference in their or someone else’s safety and wellbeing.
Take some time now to check off the “S” in the ABC’s for healthy kids. Does your family have social media smarts?
Social media can be a helpful tool, but also has risks. Teaching kids to be safe in their online interactions is important to their overall wellness.