Being a parent means that you often find yourself on a rollercoaster of emotion; from pride and joy to sheer terror and madness, frequently all in the same day.
Parenting is tough, and you’ve almost certainly looked back on at least one moment in your childhood, cringed at how your poor decision made your parents feel and worried that your children could (and probably will) do the same to you someday.
But that was then, and this is now. Today, our children have unlimited access to nearly every piece of information learned throughout humanity, essentially from the moment they exit the womb.
We’re raising a generation that doesn’t know what the world was like before the internet existed (93% of teens ages 12‐17 go online), and while this provides them with a freedom to explore the universe like never before, it also comes with its own unique set of pitfalls.
With this said, as parents of this breakthrough generation, it’s our responsibility to “raise digital citizens” that make informed decisions about what they do online, and more specifically, what they do in the social networking sphere.
However, before they’re old enough to make informed decisions, we have to make them on their behalf. Which is precisely what this article is about.
In this article, we’ll discuss the landscape of social media sites, as well as what you need to know in order to keep your child safe while using them.
We’ll also talk about issues like cyberbullying and sexting, and how you can prevent both from occurring. Then, we’ll wrap things up by outlining internet safety tips that you can immediately put to work to increase the level of online safety in your household.
The Dangers of Social Networking
As human beings, we’re social creatures. In the past, we would often get together at large gatherings of friends and family, share pictures, tell stories, and have a great time.
But as technology progressed, so have the ways in which we communicate with one another, and today, we tend to keep up with friends and family using social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others. And we do it a lot.
In fact, according to Business Insider, “Americans [now] spend more time on social media than any other major Internet activity, including email.”
Despite how frequently we use social media though, we’re typically not very informed about some of its inherent dangers. This ultimately means that we don’t know some of the basics about keeping our children safe when using social media sites, which, like the large in-person gatherings of our time, are reported to be equally as important to teens as their offline lives.
For example, did you know that according to a 2013 Pew Research study, 8 out of 10 teens who use social media share more information about themselves than they did in the past?
This includes location, images, contact information (phone numbers, addresses, etc.), and more. However, according to the National Crime Prevention Council, over-sharing information is the #1 danger associated with social network sites. The remaining 3 are:
- Believing that someone is who they say they are.
- Using location-based services.
- Posting photos.
But when you’re dealing with a tween or teenager and trying to talk with them about social media safety, where in the world can you begin? Let’s take a look.
How to Keep Your Kids Safe on Social Networking Websites
Here are some no-nonsense social media safety tips you can immediately put to use:
1. Keep the Conversation Going
While your child’s view of the world may be unique and fresh, teenagers can also be naïve about the inherent dangers of social media, since their brains haven’t fully developed and they simply haven’t been around long enough to gain much of the knowledge that we as adults take for granted.
Because of this, it’s important to let your child know that you’re there for them and that when they come to you with questions or concerns, you’ll listen with an open heart.
2. Keep It Age Appropriate
Most social media websites require that users be at least 13 since this is the age at which The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) allows information to be gathered.
However, instead of implementing technology to prevent children from having their information gathered in the first place, most companies simply ask users to indicate if they’re 13, which as many as 80% of underage users lie about—with the full knowledge of their parents.
Instead, if your child is under the required age for a social media website, they shouldn’t use it while alone.
3. Understand Location-Based Content
Have you ever seen a Facebook post from a friend that provided the city and state from which it was made? While this information is only available when posting from a mobile device, for safety purposes, it’s important that you disable location services on your child’s account. Otherwise, your child could be giving away their location to potential bullies or predators.
4. Set Guidelines for Acceptable Material
When talking with your teenager, make sure they understand what should and shouldn’t be posted to social media websites. Sexually provocative images (even those in swimsuits or bikinis) should not be shared online. A good rule of thumb is to let your teen know that they shouldn’t post anything that they wouldn’t feel comfortable showing to you.
Also, considering the huge emotional swings that come with being a teenager, your child should also remember to never post negative content about friends, family, or other students. After all, even once they’ve been deleted from your account, Facebook appears to continue to store images and posts on their servers.
This means that anything posted to the internet, whether through social media or another website, can be stored for years, which can haunt your child and negatively impact their lives for a very long time.
5. Keep Personal Information Confidential
It’s important that personal information such as age, birthday, school/church, phone number, etc. be kept confidential.
US-CERT also recommends limiting who can search for your teen’s profile on Internet search engines, managing who can view their images (untag photos if necessary), creating separate lists to manage who can see information they’ve posted, being careful about who can see their status updates, and being cautious about arranging meetings in person with online acquaintances.
This is important because the more predators know about your child through their social media profiles, the easier it is for them to set up fake accounts in an attempt to befriend them.
Also, if your teen uses an iPhone to post to social networking sites, it’s important that you’re familiar with geotagging, which can include “information that reveals the exact location (latitude and longitude) and time it was taken as well as various other pieces of sensitive data without your knowledge.
This information format is called Exchangeable Image File Format (Exif) and is embedded within the image file itself, hidden from regular viewing.” This Apple forum post discusses how to turn off geotagging, which has the possibility of letting cyberbullies and other predators know places where your child frequently visits.
6. Monitor Your Children’s Online Friends
Based on the Pew study referenced above, 33% of teenagers are social media friends with people they haven’t met in person, which means you haven’t met them either.
Carefully monitor who your teen talks with when using social media, and take note of what they’re talking about. After all, even if your child is a responsible social media user, they might be associating with someone who isn’t. As mentioned above, they may even be friends with a predator posing as someone your child’s age.
7. Consider Other Social Networking Options
Finally, remember that, although they may not be as popular as Facebook or Twitter, there are a multitude of alternative family-friendly social networking websites out there such as Yoursphere, Fanlala, and Kuddle.
But even if you’ve made sure that your teen is a responsible social networking user, there are still plenty of other dangers lurking out there; namely cyberbullying and sexting.
What Is Cyberbullying?
When it comes to our online relationships, for the most part, we tend to treat others much the same as we would in a face-to-face relationship. However, unlike offline relationships, online relationships also provide a much greater degree of anonymity, which can allow “people to do and say things they would never do otherwise.
This frankness can be useful in some instances, but it can also lead to psychological damage, especially in its younger victims who aren’t yet able to recognize the insecurities behind these behaviors.”
In other words, when our teenage children are on social networking sites, which is where most cyberbullying occurs, it can be easy for someone to create a persona and play it out as long as they wish, almost like a character. But unlike in books and movies, while the persona we play may not be reflective us who we really are as a person, it can have tangible, lasting effects on others.
With this said, according to BullyingStatistics.org, online bullying, also known as cyberbullying, isn’t just teasing or threatening someone, but also involves:
- Sending mean messages or threats to a person's email account or cell phone
- Spreading rumors online or through texts
- Posting hurtful or threatening messages on social networking sites or web pages
- Stealing a person's account information to break into their account and send damaging messages
- Pretending to be someone else online to hurt another person
- Taking unflattering pictures of a person and spreading them through cell phones or the Internet
- Sexting, or circulating sexually suggestive pictures or messages about a person (we’ll talk more about this in a moment)
And it’s a widespread problem. According to the BullyingStatistics.org, almost half of all kids have been bullied online, and 25% have been bullied more than once. However, it’s also interesting to note than 53% of these children admit to having bullied someone else online, and more than 1/3 of them have done it on more than one occasion.
In-person, physical bullying was tough enough for our parents to deal with. But as a 21st-century parent, what in the world can you do about cyberbullying?
First of all, understand that your child may not approach you about being cyberbullied, as they could be “embarrassed, or they fear you will overreact, or that you will restrict or curtail their mobile phone or online activities to protect them.” This means that you’ll have to keep a sharp eye out of some of the telltale signs of cyberbullying.
The Warning Signs of Cyberbullying
PureSight.com states that one or more of the following behaviors could indicate that your child is a cyberbullying victim:
- Stops using the computer or mobile phone suddenly or when you approach
- Seems nervous or edgy when new text, e-mail or instant messages arrive
- Is hesitant about going to school or leaving the house
- Seems angry, depressed or frustrated after using the computer
- Avoids talking about what she does on the computer or about who they are talking to on the mobile phone
- Secludes herself and avoids contact with family and friends or acts reluctant to attend school and social events
- Grades begin to decline
- Lack of appetite or has trouble sleeping
On the other hand, your child may be bullying someone online if they exhibit some of the following behaviors:
- Changes screens or closes programs quickly when you approach
- Uses the computer frequently and/or at all hours of the night
- Gets annoyed if doesn’t have access to the computer or mobile phone
- Avoids talking about what he does on the computer or on the mobile phone
- Laughs excessively while online or while using the mobile phone
- Uses multiple online accounts or accounts that are not theirs
- Has been involved in bullying incidents at school or has been the target of bullies in the past.
Whether your child is being bullied or is the one doing the bullying, how can you put a stop to it?
How to Stop Your Child from Being Cyberbullied
If your child is the one being cyberbullied through social media or other electronic means, the first thing you should tell them is that they shouldn’t respond to the bully’s taunts. Ever. This is because, whether online or off, bullies are simply looking for a response, and when they don’t get one from your child, they’ll often move along.
If the bullying has been going on for a while before you learn about it, it’s recommended that you carefully document everything by saving images, emails, and text messages. If your child attends the same school as the bully, the school should be notified.
If the cyberbullying has been going on for a long period of time, includes threats, and/or is sexually motivated, then the police should be notified as well. Keep in mind that according to WebMD, “Children may worry about making other kids angry by telling on them. But exposing the abuse is the only way to stop the problem. A child can ask to remain anonymous when reporting an incident.”
What If Your Child Is the One Doing the Cyberbullying?
If your child is the one doing the bullying, it doesn’t necessarily reflect on your skills as a parent. In fact, without adequate time for their brains to develop, many teens many not even recognize that what they’re doing is bad.
The first thing you should do if you find out that your child is bullying someone online is to explain that it’s wrong, and ask how they would feel if someone else was treating them the same way.
Next, discover what’s going on in their life that would cause them to bully another child. Bullying is often the manifestation of some other underlying issue, whether it’s problems at home, becoming part of a new peer group, or even being the victim of bullying themselves.
It’s also important to stress to your teen that cyberbullying could actually be a crime, depending on the state in which you live (here in WA, it’s RCW 9.61.260).
From there, it would probably be a good idea to monitor your child’s internet usage, whether on a PC or a smartphone. Depending on the severity of their cyberbullying, it might even be prudent to take all their electronic devices away.
If, after talking with your child and implementing some of the strategies above, you find out your child has continued bullying others online, it may be best to have them speak with a counselor or psychologist for professional help.
What Is Sexting?
In addition to cyberbullying, sexting, which is defined as “an act of sending sexually explicit materials through mobile phones,” is another touchy subject. After all, as parents, it’s completely normal for us to imagine that our little babies haven’t grown up, haven’t fallen in and out of love, and haven’t started forming their sexual identities of their own.
With this said, how you ultimately choose to address this concern with your child will depend largely on the circumstances, your values, and so forth. But keep this in mind: if you choose to ignore the problem, you could be putting your child at an increased risk.
How Commonplace Is Sexting?
Whether you’re comfortable with it or not, the reality is that sexting is very common among teenagers. In fact, according to DoSomething.org, “24% of high-school age teens (ages 14 to 17) and 33% of college-age students (ages 18 to 24) have been involved in a form of nude sexting.”
And astoundingly, “15% of teens who have sent or posted nude/semi-nude images of themselves send these messages to people they have never met, but know from the Internet.” This means that about 4 out of every 100 teenagers have sent a sexually suggestive or explicit image to what amounts to a complete stranger.
And just like when posting images on social media websites, sexting can have a far-reaching impact for many years to come.
The Dangers of Sexting
When it comes to sending explicit photos via text, although there are some very real physical dangers that can result, most of the associated peril is psychological.
For example, if a teenage girl sends a sexual photo to her boyfriend, according to IKeepSafe.org she’s now relinquished control of the image, and the reality is that one or more of the following could happen:
Her boyfriend will show (or even send) the image to his friends, caused by something known as trophy syndrome.
If he shows or sends the image to enough people, the girl may experience public humiliation. And as you probably already know, widespread public humiliation can be devastating to a teenager, and can even lead to suicide.
Very few teenage relationships last long, so if the boy and girl break up, the boy may retaliate and post the image online, at which point it becomes viewable by hundreds of millions of people. In some instances, extended family members may learn about the image, causing further humiliation.
In a worst-case scenario, the girl could be subjected to cyberbullying or even sextortion. In fact, according to a July 2014 USA Today article, “The number of complaints of online enticement of children is climbing. The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which helps state and local law enforcement agencies fight online child pornography, reports that the number of complaints to its 61 offices nationwide has grown from 5,300 in 2010 to 7,000 in 2013.”
Based on current facts and figures, sexting doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, nor will the criminals that prey on your child’s vulnerabilities. But breaching the subject of sex with your child can be uncomfortable, to say the least, so here are some suggestions to help you along the way.
How to Protect Your Children from Sexting
When compared to traditional online threats to our children, according to a 2012 study by the UK-based National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, sexting is unique in that, “For young people, the primary technology-related threat is not the ‘stranger danger’ hyped by the mass media but technology-mediated sexual pressure from their peers.
For example, rarely did children express to us any concern about inappropriate sexual approaches from strangers (and when they did, they seemed able quickly to brush off the approach as from a ‘weirdo’, ‘pervert’ or ‘paedo’). Rather, the problems posed by sexting come from their peers – indeed, from their ‘friends’ in their social networks, thus rendering much commonplace advice (about being careful who you contact, or keeping your profile private) beside the point.”
In order to sufficiently address the issue of sexting with your child, many of the existing rules may no longer apply. However, you still need to keep an honest and open dialogue with your child, and the American Association of Pediatrics recommends talking with them in an age-appropriate manner as soon as they begin using a cell phone.
Younger children with cell phones need to be advised that they should never take pictures with their clothes off, while you can be more explicit with older children and teens about what is and isn’t acceptable.
Also, if you see a sexting-related headline or news story, showing it to your child can be a great way to open up a discussion, and asking what they would have done in the same situation can help you better understand their mindset.
However the conversation goes, it’s important for you to drive home the point that sending or receiving a sexually suggestive text or images under the age of 18 is considered child pornography and can result in criminal charges. Make sure that your children understand the seriousness of sexting, both from a legal standpoint as well as a personal one.
Finally, teenagers don’t exactly have a reputation for being open and honest with their parents, so you may decide to install cell phone monitoring software that will let you know exactly what your teen is up to.
Additional Safety Tips to Keep Your Children Safe Online
We’ve already covered some great tips on how to keep your child safe when using social networking websites, but we thought it would be a good idea to cover some broader online tips as well. By implementing many of these recommendations, you may be able to largely avoid many of the problems associated with social networking sites in the first place.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s your responsibility as a parent to educate yourself first about the devices your children are using and the social media platforms they’re accessing them with. Your kids count on you not knowing what their devices are capable of.
It’s also up to you to be a role model for proper, responsible behavior, not just online, but in real life as well.
Implement rules regarding how much time your children are allowed to spend online, which devices they can use, where they’re allowed to use them, and the consequences they’ll face if any of the rules are broken.
Make sure you have all passwords to social networking websites, and that your children know what to do if there’s a problem.
Don’t allow computers or other electronic devices to be used in bedrooms. Instead, place them in a central area of the home.
As mentioned above, monitor cell phone usage directly through the carrier or using third-party software.
Girls are more likely to chat with strangers and to send inappropriate photos on social networking sites. If you’re the parent of a young girl, you may need to be extra vigilant.
However, this doesn’t mean that teenage boys don’t come with their own set of challenges. Because of this, it’s wise to monitor which games they’re playing, what information they’re sharing, and who they’re sharing it with.
Be blunt, but age-appropriate, about the consequences of some types of online behavior. There are hundreds of shocking examples of very young children who get caught up in the wrong thing, as this 2013 Daily Mail article outlines.