It’s estimated that American adults spend somewhere between three and four hours on sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, every day. That’s a lot of time tweeting, pinning, liking and otherwise sliding down social media’s never-ending slope of links, videos and updates. And somewhere in the midst of that, our kids are bound to lean over our shoulders and beg to get in on the fun.
Keeping kids from social media when they’re age 5 or 6 is relatively easy, but ultimately—especially with children scoring smartphones and tablets at younger and younger ages—we will have to relinquish control and allow them to establish their own profiles. It’s an inevitability of this strange, new world we live in; all we can do is try to prepare. We talked to online safety experts to get the low-down on how to do just that:
Stranger danger, online version
When we were growing up, the common refrain of “Don’t talk to strangers” mostly applied to sketchy looking middle-aged men with beards and baseball caps who offered candy in exchange for a ride in their equally sketchy looking cars. But with the advent of the internet and the ability for anyone to hide behind a pseudo profile, that danger takes on a whole new meaning. There’s pressure for kids to have as many friends and followers as possible, but identity theft expert Robert Siciliano advises against padding those numbers.
“Kids shouldn’t accept friend requests from people they don’t know just to have more friends,” Siciliano says. “You’re not special just because you have 1,800 ‘friends.’” Not only are kids “not special” when they’re linked to hundreds or thousands of people they don’t even know, but they’re also prime targets for fraud or scams. He gives this example: “Sally is 14. She accepts a friend request from Dan, who is 17. He’s a cute boy. But Dan is 45. He’s married with two kids, and he’s a pedophile. For weeks to months he communicates with Sally. She falls in love with him because Dan knows exactly what to say. Eventually Dan breaks the news that he’s not exactly 17, but she still loves him. So it’s okay. But really, it’s the furthest thing from okay. Dan is a monster. They meet. They ‘make love’ in her mind. Dan rapes her.”
Learning to keep secrets
Even when kids are communicating online with friends and people they know offline, it is important that they understand that not everything should be shared via the internet. “Our moms used to say, ‘Never put anything in writing that you don’t want published on the front page of The New York Times,’ and this warning definitely applies to present-day social media,” says Andrea Eldridge, CEO and co-founder of Nerds on Call and internet expert. “That photo of your child doing something exceptionally dumb can be used against them—by a schoolmate playing a prank or, worse, school administrators and even the police.”
Aside from being the butt of a cruel joke, divulging personal information online can also set kids up to the be victims of full-fledged criminal activity. “Caution kids not to post anything that could trace them back to their location offline or allow a criminal to take advantage of them, like their full name, Social Security number, address or phone number,” says Eldridge. “And make sure their screen name does not contain any personal information, like email address or birth date.”
When it comes to selfies, parents need to have a frank discussion with their kids about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, says Dr. Max Wachtel, a psychologist in Denver and author of The One Rule For Boys. “Some research shows that teens are more likely to take sexually explicit pictures of themselves and post them to social media than adults because of their developing brains and their relative lack of impulse control,” Wachtel explains. “Tell kids that they should assume any picture they take of themselves—no matter if they are holding a pet or drinking a beer or showing off body parts—will end up on the internet, and everyone will see it.”
Teaching online courtesy
As parents, we teach our kids to be kind and gracious members of society. And that should apply online, as well. “There are social ramifications for kids not using their manners online,” says Eldridge. Words on a computer screen often fail to convey the tone behind them, so Eldridge says kids need to be careful of what they write, especially when they’re joking. “’Please’ and ‘thank you’ go a long way in electronic communications,” she says. “Also, teach them to avoid the ‘rant.’ No one appreciates being yelled at in the real world, and using bold fonts, lots of exclamation points or all caps is the internet equivalent.”
Of course, as in the real world, things will get misconstrued online, or your kids will cross paths with others who are just plain mean. Cyberbullying is a very real concern for parents, and the best strategy is to talk about it before it ever even happens, says Wachtel. “Let your kids know that some kids who would never be bullies in real life may get caught up in it in the virtual world because everything feels more impersonal online,” he says. “And let your kids know you are always there to talk with them about it. It is important to actually be able to listen to what your kids have to say and keep from freaking out. If they are telling you about online bullying, let them talk it through with you and show them that you can handle what they have to say. Then, deal with it through the school, other parents, the online community and so on.”
Keeping communication open
Letting your kids loose on the internet is a scary thing, so it’s natural for parents to want to periodically check in on their kids’ activities. The secret to doing so in an open and honest way that doesn’t betray your kids’ trust is to let them know that you will, in fact, be monitoring them. “Make sure you have access to their accounts, and make sure you tell them you are accessing them,” says Wachtel. “If you are sneaking behind their backs and trying to monitor them secretly, your kids will find out, and they will freak out about it. Studies are very clear on this: parents who snoop on their kids end up knowing much less about their children than parents who are not snoopers.