How to Talk to Your Kids About Their Internet & Social Media Safety

Every generation of parents has a new set of worries for its children, and in recent years this worry has come in a digital form: social media. Social media penetrates nearly every aspect of our lives—and even more so with kids and teens. For younger children, regulation is a bit easier as parents can more effectively control screen time, but as kids enter the teen years and have their own devices, this becomes more and more difficult.

Back in 2011, during the rise of social media, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) felt strongly enough about the topic to issue a clinical report designed to increase parental awareness of the sites their kids were visiting and how those sites work. Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill and coauthor of the report, told Parenting Magazine, “The digital world is an evolving landscape that parents have to learn to navigate.”

According a May 2018 Pew Research Center report titled “Teens, Social Media & Technology,” YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are the most popular platforms among teens. The report also shares that 95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone and 45 percent say they are online almost constantly. While there are certainly positive aspects to social media usage, such as keeping in touch with far-flung family members or the ability to form new friendships, this constant internet access opens a lot of opportunities for information to be permanently available to those seeking to take advantage of it.

Parents can do several things to educate their children, regardless of age, about social media use, helping them become better digital citizens. The first step is fostering a culture of open conversation in the family. Kids should feel comfortable coming to parents for advice and shouldn’t feel like any topic is too taboo to discuss. Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker and the author of “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do,” told why it is important to make the social media discussion a two-way conversation, not a lecture. Parents need to really listen to their children and use their responses to inform the discussion.

If you use social media for personal or work reasons, share a bit of that online life with your kids too–this helps create an ongoing conversation about online habits and what might or might not be appropriate.

It’s also important to remind kids that the internet is not a private place. Even when you are using strong privacy settings, if the information is online, it can be found. A helpful way to communicate this is to explain that if your children wouldn’t want to share something that might be seen by Mom or Dad, maybe it’s something that they shouldn’t be sharing at all.

Another integral step for parents is to avoid turning social media or online games into forbidden fruit. Instead of making the internet off limits, teach children to use it in ways that is fun and safe. The more accepting and open parents are with their kids, the less social media and other internet services will be used secretly.

Helping your teen or child set up secure ways to use the internet and social media is no different from teaching them about “stranger danger.” Small steps can be effective in protecting your children’s identity in the Internet Age. Those steps include helping your kids to pick a strong password, making passwords different for each account, creating security answers, making accounts private, instilling good habits around never giving away personal information (address and phone numbers), and being selective with friend requests.

It’s also important to address issues like cyberbullying. On the one hand, kids should be clear that you expect them to treat others with respect both offline and on. On the other, children should always share with you any posts they themselves might find hurtful or harassing.

Teaching your children to be safe online is something that will continue to evolve as new apps, social platforms and ways to share information emerge. In the end, you should always be your children’s safety net: there in case they need you.

Interested in having more autonomy over protecting your children’s information online and in social media? Join millions of Americans in urging Congress to provide for the Right to Be Forgotten. Sign the petition that will go to your Representatives and add your name to the list of concerned citizens who want action.