11.21.2018Tech

Keeping your child safe on social media

By: Kim Ancin
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It’s a major part of parenting to help kids navigate their world. Today, social media is one of the biggest new territories. Even tech-savvy parents may feel a bit left behind by what their kids are doing on the latest social/chat platforms. Much of what kids do online is positive; many use social media to express their personalities, keep in touch with friends and family, and even to learn. Here’s some advice to help you set reasonable boundaries and encourage positive use.

How old should kids be to use social media?

There’s no debate about the right age for open social/chat platforms. “Don’t let them on social media until they’re 13,” says Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI). Legally, they can’t sign up for an account until then. That’s because the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) prevents companies from collecting information about kids younger than 13. However, most sites simply state that you need to be 13 and ask for an age or birthdate.

Well before 13, your kids will probably tell you that “everybody” is on social media and that you’re ruining their lives by not letting them on. According to a survey from Consumer Reports, 7.5 million kids under the age of 13 are on social media in North America. That may sound like “everybody”, but it’s actually a small fraction of the total population.

When young kids are online, it’s often parents who sign them up for Facebook to keep in touch with grandparents and relatives, says Balkam. In December 2017, Facebook launched a solution: Parents can create accounts for their children on Messenger Kids, a platform that only lets kids text and video chat with approved contacts. That’s better than letting your kids know you lied about their age on the Facebook registration page.

If your kids still insist that you’re ruining their lives by not letting them on SnapChat or the latest favorite social channel, rest assured that your child isn’t the only one. There are other parents like you who are resisting the pressure until 13 and sometimes even later.

Looking for more support on waiting? Learn how to know when kids are ready for social media accounts from FOSI.

According to a survey from Consumer Reports, 7.5 million kids under the age of 13 are on social media in North America. That may sound like “everybody”, but it’s actually a small fraction of the total population.

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What are kids doing online?

It’s a good idea to follow and friend your kids online – and take the time to see what they post. Some parents choose to sign in and sift through the interactions. Here’s where you’ll find them: A 2018 survey by Pew Research found that 85% of teens (13-17) are on YouTube, 72% are on Instagram, 69% are on SnapChat, and 51% are on Facebook. A smaller percentage also have Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit and other accounts. They say they spend most of their time on YouTube and SnapChat, followed by Instagram. 

When you check their posts, you’ll probably see a lot of adorable stuff, from kitten memes to trick basketball shots. Kids really do a lot of cute kid stuff online. But sometimes there’s more that you aren’t seeing. A recent survey from Common Sense Media found that 27% of teens (14-17) had at least one hidden account. For example, did you know that it’s now popular to have a “rinsta” (real Instagram) account as well as a “finsta” (fake Instagram) account? Then there’s SnapChat, which deletes messages and photos as soon as they’re viewed, leaving nothing for parents to see when they check later. Even games like Fortnite and Just Cause 3 have a social chat option. And with about 5,000 new apps available every day, even experts can’t predict when the next hot social media platform will launch.

Is there any way to protect kids on social media?

When it comes to social media, even kids say it’s not always a good thing. The Pew Research survey found that while 31% of teens said social media has had a positive effect on their lives, 24% said the effect was mostly negative, and 45% said it wasn’t good or bad.

To help your kids avoid any downsides, start with parental controls. For your child’s cell phone, use Verizon Smart Family to block specific social media channels. At home, use parental controls on your wireless router. These settings let you block content to all devices using your WiFi, which includes computers/laptops and cell phones. You’ll find the controls on the My Fios app and on the My Verizon website. To find the parental controls, click on Internet, then Manage My Devices, and then Devices & Parental Controls.

Also, work together with your kids to decide on the rules for social media use. Here are some topics to discuss:

  1. Talk about which social media channels they can use. Ask them to show you how each channel works. Decide if they can sign up for new accounts on their own or need to get your permission. Insist that they not share their password — except with you.
  2. Let them know that you will be friending and following them. Just knowing that parents are supervising may deter risky or negative behavior. They may even find it comforting to know you’re there.
  3. Discuss who they can interact with online. Some families say they should only talk to people they’ve met in person. Decide if it’s okay for them to interact with friends of friends (and, if not, how to keep posts private).
  4. Clarify what’s appropriate to share on social/chat platforms and what isn’t. Make sure they know that it’s easy to take a screenshot, even on SnapChat. Anything they post could be widely shared and could live forever online. A good rule: If you wouldn’t say it in public or in front of your parent or teacher, don’t say it online.
  5. Talk about when to report something they see online that isn’t appropriate. Ask them to use the site’s reporting feature and to tell you. Assure them that you’ll react appropriately. You’re building trust that they can come to you.
  6. Encourage them to follow their own values when communicating. Discuss how words and pictures can be harmful. Let them know that while it’s hard to go against the crowd, you’re proud when they do what they know is right.
  7. Talk about how much time they can spend on social media and when they have to be offline (meals, homework, bedtime).
  8. Discuss what will happen if you see they’re struggling to use social media in a positive way.

It’s also helpful to set family rules for cell phone use.

Additional online safety resources for parents

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About the author(s): 

Kim Ancin has been telling stories for over 20 years. She works on the Corporate Communications team on both editorial and media efforts. She loves how tech has changed our lives in both ordinary and extraordinary ways.

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