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How to talk with your kids about social media safety

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by Jennifer Bridges  @JenBridgesRD

Shot of a young woman and her son using a digital tablet together in the morning at home

This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.

As a parent, you understand the dangers of the world. That means you understand there are certain risks involved in using social media platforms. 

Social media sites like Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok hold many unseen safety concerns—and these risks are especially dangerous for young people, who may not be aware of these threats or fully understand their consequences.

Naturally, you want to teach your children how to stay safe on the internet. This means you’ll need to fully understand the privacy settings and parental controls available to you.

One of the most effective ways to protect your child is to start an ongoing conversation about cybersafety, harmful content, and other online risks. But, what’s the best way to go about this?

Keep reading to learn:

  • When you should start talking about social media safety
  • Ways to make the conversation more insightful
  • What topics you should cover
  • Other steps you can take to keep your child safe on social media

When should you start talking about social media safety?

Ideally, you want to have your first discussion before your child goes online.

For some families, especially those in which one or more parents are heavy social media users, this might mean initiating a conversation with your 7-year-old and starting to have honest conversations about social media.

Other parents might not need to start these talks until a year or two later.

The key is to watch your child closely and start the conversation as soon as he or she shows any interest in social media and establishing an online life.

Discussing positive online behavior with children is important. Sharing expectations and online safety best practices are critical for their well-being and protection, especially when they begin to independently use the Internet or have their first cell phone.”Lisa-Michelle Kucharz‏, cyberbullying prevention and cybersafety advocate

Tips for getting the most out of the conversation

Talking about sensitive issues with your child can often be an awkward and frustrating exercise. This is especially true when talking about what to share and not share on social media profiles.

To make these discussions easier—as well as more productive—do your best to avoid lecturing your child.

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You want these conversations to be a two-way street. Moreover, talking “at” your child (instead of “with” your child) will only ensure that he or she will avoid bringing up this subject with you ever again.

This is what you don’t want.

Instead, try and be open and free in discussing the social lives of your children so they feel they can trust you.

You can do this by asking open-ended questions that make your child think and require more than “yes” or “no” answers.

For example, (assuming he or she is already on social media) instead of merely asking your child if he or she has ever seen anyone being attacked online, you could ask him or her to describe a hurtful online interaction that he or she has witnessed.

This approach not only provides you with more information about your child’s online experiences, but it also furthers the conversation by naturally leading to additional questions like “what constitutes online abuse?” and “what should you do if you witness someone being attacked online?”

Some important thought-provoking questions to ask are:

  • What are the best/worst aspects of social media?
  • How could you use social media to uplift someone?
  • What would make you feel safer online?

Your teens may always be an app ahead of you, but they will always need our offline wisdom.”—Sue Scheff, author and family Internet safety advocate

What topics should you include in your discussions?

There are many topics to choose from when it comes to staying safe when using social media, including:

But don’t worry. You don’t have to cover all these things in your very first discussion. Just make sure to touch on the following basic concepts over the course of your ongoing conversations.

As your kids get older and gain more online experience, you can adjust the subject matter and the depth of your discussions to accommodate their new level of understanding.

The internet is forever

This is perhaps the most crucial thing your child should know: Anything you put online will live there indefinitely and have the power to affect your life for many years to come. And more importantly, once you post something, it is out of your control.

Even if you regret a post and decide to delete it, this does not guarantee that it is gone forever.

It can still come back to haunt you if someone managed to take a screenshot of it before you took it down.

Social media posts have cost people jobs, ruined their chances of getting into the university they wanted to attend, hijacked their mental health, and even put a damper on their dating lives.

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It’s scary to think those little mobile devices we all carry around, have the potential to ruin our lives in a matter of seconds.

Therefore, your child needs to think very carefully before he or she says or shares anything on social media. The things your child shares online should always represent his or her best self. A good test before your child posts anything is to ask, “What would my grandmother think of this post?”

People aren’t always who they appear to be

There are 500,000 predators online each day, and children need to know how to avoid falling prey to them. One way to warn them is to explain that everyone on the internet may essentially be hiding behind a “mask” that they’ve created.

As such, you don’t know who’s really behind the profile you are interacting with. That sixth-grade girl to whom you’ve been confiding your secrets could really be a 50-year-old man who’s trying to meet you offline, scam you, or steal your personal information.

Adolescent brains rarely consider the consequences, so it’s up to you to discuss this at the dinner table or while shooting hoops. Just make it a part of your daily routine to keep them focused on the realities of social media until they say “OK. OK, I get it.”

Here are a few things your kids can do now to stay safer:

  • Limit your social media friends to your real-life friends.
  • Don’t chat with or send pictures to strangers.
  • Never share personal information like your last name, phone number, the name of your school, or where you live.

It’s important for your children to follow their instincts. If anyone they talk to online ever makes them feel uncomfortable in any way, there’s no need to respond to that person. Instead, your child should:

  • Make an excuse and leave the conversation.
  • Block the person.
  • Take a screenshot for evidence.
  • Report the person to the platform.
  • Tell an adult.

Why oversharing is bad

When you post personal information (like your address, age, phone number, or account numbers) online, you are exposing this information to cybercriminals, who are looking to hack into your accounts, burglarize your home, or stalk you—both online and in real life.

What’s worse, many people are constantly posting this type of data without even realizing they are doing so.

If, for example, you have location-based services turned on, then you are revealing your physical location in your social media posts in real time.

This means that if you post at regular intervals during the day from your home, your favorite coffee shop, and your school, then a potential stalker could easily track you by following your daily commute.

To keep his or her information safe, your child should:

  • Restrict who can see his or her profile and posts (privacy settings).
  • Turn off all location settings on all social media platforms.
  • Use strong passwords and 2-factor authentication whenever possible.
  • Keep his or her login information secret.
  • Carefully screen the backgrounds of all photos he or she posts to be sure they don’t contain any street address information, rare or valuable items, details about an upcoming vacation, or anything else that could make him or her a target for crime.

Social media can be a powerful tool for good

To avoid overwhelming your child with negative information, don’t just talk about the downsides of social media. Give them the upside to social media usage too. Yes, it has the power to hurt people, but it also has a great capacity to do good.

  • It gives young people a voice: Social media not only exposes kids to a number of causes and issues, but it also offers them a way to make an impact via crowdfunding and awareness-raising campaigns.
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  • It offers emotional support: Social media and online games can provide a “channel for social support,” according to professor Keith Hampton, the director of academic research at Michigan State University’s Quello Center.
  • It is an expressive outlet: Social media allows kids to share their creative endeavors with a wide audience and lets them connect with collaborators and supporters around the world.

Create a mindset that their child’s digital tool was built for communication and if they can help their children (and their child’s friends) change their thinking from, “How do I hide something detrimental on a tool of communication” to “How do I use my skills with my tool of communication to be amazing or uplifting,” then they have an opportunity to open windows of opportunity past generations may have never thought possible.”—Richard Guerry, cybersafety educator and founder of IROC2

Rules for accessing social media

To keep your child safer and ensure that social media activities don’t interfere with your child’s homework or other responsibilities, you need to establish some basic rules for when and where your child can go online. To get his or her complete buy-in, it’s best if you engage your child in the decision-making process.

Brainstorm with your child about what rules he or she thinks would be appropriate and what consequences for breaking them would be fair. Some common social media rules include:

  • Logging in only after finishing homework and other chores
  • Only using social media on the family computer (so a parent can monitor your activity)
  • Restricting social media use to a maximum of 30 minutes per day

Being a good digital citizen means treating yourself and others with respect and doing your part to make the online world a better place.

This is especially important on social media because the remote and anonymous nature of digital communication—as well as an apparent lack of repercussions for bad behavior—make it easier for individuals to be mean to other people online.

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According to a Pew Research Center study, nearly half of teens have experienced cyberbullying, such as the spreading of fake rumors and name-calling. Therefore, it’s important to teach your child what to do when he or she encounters this type of situation.

Some parents find that having their children sign a Digital Citizenship Pledge is a good way to ensure they know what kind of online behavior you expect from them. This type of document usually includes the following dictates:

  • Be an upstander: An upstander is someone who sees something bad happening and does something to fix it. Explain to your child that by flagging and reporting any cruel or harsh online behavior, he or she can prevent numerous others from being hurt.
  • Communicate with kindness: Even more alarming is the fact more than 1 in 10 teens have cyberbullied others. Make sure your child understands that when he or she harasses other people, he or she not only hurts that other person, but he or she also damages his or her own reputation. The ugly comments your child posts in middle school will become part of his or her digital identity, which can follow him or her for the rest of his or her life.

“Reflect (before you post)
Respect (yourself and others)
Protect (private information)
Project (a positive profile)”

—Cat Coode, online privacy and reputation expert and founder of Binary Tattoo

The importance of asking for help

Together with your child, come up with situations in which he or she should ask you for help. During this discussion, we suggest that you make a point to tell your child that you won’t punish him or her by taking away his or her electronics for reporting a problem, even if it was due to a mistake on his or her part. This way, your child will have no incentive to hide anything from you.

You should also learn about the laws regarding online victimization so you can teach your child the potential legal consequences of people’s online activities. By researching the laws in your area, you will also learn the proper steps to take if something bad does occur.

Most importantly, pay attention to your instincts. If you suspect that something is bothering your child, then you should act on these feelings and try to find out what’s going on.

Other ways to keep your child safe on social media

Another effective way to protect your child from the pitfalls of social media is to learn more about it yourself. Sadly, many parents aren’t interested in what their children are doing online until something terrible happens.

Are your kids protected online? Talk to an expert

Don’t wait until your child experiences a crisis to discover all you can about his or her online activity:

  • Find out what apps your kid is using and try them yourself: Study how they work and what kind of interactions take place on each platform. Have your child walk you through a session on his or her account.
  • Ask other parents what social media platforms their kids are on: If an app is popular with all your kid’s friends, then chances are good that your child is on it too.
  • Stay informed about cybersecurity news: Subscribe to a parenting or security blog that focuses on social media safety to learn the latest information to keep your child safe.
  • Don’t give up: Don’t let your interest in your child’s social media activity fall by the wayside when life gets hectic. Just like you wouldn’t skip one of your child’s recitals, you shouldn’t let your guard down regarding your child’s online safety. It’s that important.

1 Get educated; your kid may know more than you
2 Hold ongoing social media chats
3 Teach SAFE so your child knows WHAT to do if bullied
S-Stop; don’t click back
A-Tell an ADULT
F-FILTER your personal information
E-Save EVIDENCE; don’t delete

Dr. Michele Borba, character development and bullying prevention author and speaker

For a deeper look into what other internet users see about your child, take advantage of our free reputation report card. It not only gives you a grade for his or her online reputation, but it also immediately tells you what others can see about your child on the internet.

It’s one of the best free tools you can utilize to see right away if you need to intervene and get professional help to clear up your child’s online presence before it affects his or her safety or future.