In the times we live in, many children learn how to use the internet before they know how to read or write. In fact, one study in 2011 by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a research group affiliated with Sesame Street, found that 25% of children under age 6 regularly access the internet.
In 2013, Microsoft conducted a survey asking parents at what age they were comfortable allowing children to begin using internet-connected devices without supervision. Ninety-four percent said 8 was an acceptable age.
Getting Social at a Young Age
As the prevalence of internet-connected devices has continued increasing over the last several years, so has the use of social media. With more and more kids and teens going online, it’s not surprising that much of the explosion in social media use over the last 10 years has been driven by younger users.
Certainly, there are benefits to allowing children and teens access to these platforms—educational and social benefits chief among them—but there are also risks. Among those are social conflicts, unhealthy decreases in real-life activities and relationships, and possible exposure to inappropriate material and strangers with questionable intentions.
The federal government, in recognizing the dangers of unsupervised online access for younger kids, passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA) in 1998. COPPA makes it illegal for websites to grant personal online accounts to children under age 13 without parental consent. This rule provides a critical tool for helping parents exert greater control over what their kids do and see online, including on social medal. There are other measures parents can take, though, to help keep kids safe on social media, and we’ve compiled seven suggestions below. Whether you’re considering allowing your children to open a social media account or want to get a better handle on their usage, we hope this list might offer some productive ideas for enhanced safety.
Control and Continually Monitor Friend and Follower Lists
Social media is all about connections—basically, the more friends or followers one accumulates, the more active and influential that account. However, as the number of friends or followers increase on a child or teen account, so does the difficulty of parental management and the risk of exposure to inappropriate material and strangers.
We strongly recommend reviewing every friend or follower on the account(s) with the child. It’s important to understand who any unfamiliar person might be and whether they should remain as a contact.
It’s also a good idea to add multiple family members to your child’s account. This will help provide extra eyes to help monitor what’s happening on the account, providing an extra layer of protection in working to keep kids safe on social media.
Control Login Credentials to Help Keep Kids Safe on Social Media
Although children and teens certainly have privacy rights, these only extend so far into the social media realm. We recommend that parents always know the username and passwords to their children’s accounts. This allows for regular and on-demand monitoring. And don’t make your access a secret, either. Talk to your kids and let them know that, as their parent, you have an obligation to monitor their accounts for safety. Open and honest communication is key so that children aren’t surprised or don’t feel betrayed when you see their social media activity.
Bring Online Life into the Real World to Help Keep Kids Safe on Social Media
Once you’re familiar with your child’s friends and follower lists, it’s not a bad idea to single out particular contacts with your child to encourage and arrange real-life encounters and events. Such encounters might be a sleepover with a group of Facebook friends or maybe a trip to the zoo, an amusement park, a theater or an arcade. The idea is to remind kids that there is a real-world person behind every contact, and that social media needn’t be limited to onscreen interactions. With some effort and proper management, you might help enhance and expand children’s real-world relationships through social media interaction.
Locked-Down Privacy Settings Can Help Keep Kids Safe on Social Media
Every social media platform includes a suite of controls that allow the user to manage who can see their posts, personal information or even the account itself. We recommend locking down children’s accounts to help maintain maximum control. This isn’t just a safety issue, but also an issue of privacy and of control of one’s personal data. The younger a child starts on social media, the more information they’ll put out there, making data theft and identity fraud a greater possibility as time passes if accounts aren’t properly secured.
Talk to Kids About Password Security and the Importance of Strong Passwords
Any kid old enough to use social media should be old enough to understand the importance of password security and of using strong passwords. We recommend that parents have a “password talk” with children and even consider turning password creation into a game. Doing so can result not only in strong passwords, but also in passwords that are more likely to be recalled. Visit our previous blog for ideas on creating strong passwords. Children must also understand the need to keep passwords secret and to never share them with anyone, ever.
Talk to Kids About What They’re Doing on Social Media
Many parents routinely ask kids about what they’re doing in school, creating an ongoing dialogue about a child’s progress, success (or lack thereof) and social life. It’s a good idea to include a child’s social media life as part of such conversations or to make social media updates a regular conversation of their own. Again, communication, honesty and open dialogue is key.
Spend Time Doing Stuff Together to Help Keep Kids Safe on Social Media
Although the practice may not be as common as in previous eras, many families still spend time gathered around a TV watching shows or movies together. Social media presents a great opportunity for a new, technological twist on family-based “screen time.”
We recommend setting aside time each week to log into the child’s social media accounts together. Even 20 to 30 minutes spent liking, sharing, commenting, watching videos, looking at pictures and interacting with others can not only provide insight into what children do on social media and how they communicate on these platforms, but it could also strengthen the bond between parent and child and lead to important discussions about topics encountered online.
Parental Guidance is Critical in Every Era
In our technology-driven world, social media is becoming a greater factor in the lives of many children, and has significant potential to make a positive impact. No matter the era, though, or its level of technology, kids need guidance. Parents need to have faith in their children to a certain degree, too, trusting they can and will make good online decisions and will confide any problems. Open communication, transparency and active participation in and monitoring of the child’s online activities are key.