Keeping Our Kids Safe on Social Media

By Tracey Dowdy

Let me begin by saying not everything our kids are doing online is dangerous and not all social media platforms are bad.

As parents, trying to keep up with what our kids are up to online may feel like eating soup with a fork. Relax. We don’t need to be active on all the social media sites our kids are using. In fact, if we start using one platform, our kids will likely abandon it. But, being active and being aware are two very different things. We’re raising our kids in a digital age and at The Online Mom we advocate safe and responsible use of all tech devices and social media.

I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again, no app, whitelist, blacklist or software can replace open and honest conversation with your kids. Setting boundaries while they’re young, when they are first becoming active online, is the key. If you’re late to the game, don’t panic. Educate yourself about what’s out there, what apps are popular and which of them pose the greatest potential for risky behavior.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of talking to your kids. Ask questions, but be prepared to do some homework. Your children likely won’t be any more forthcoming about what they’re up to than you were with your own parents. Did you give them all the details of the parties you went to? The people you hung out with? The dumb things your friends did? Of course not. The difference today is that instead of hanging out in the basement with friends while we’re upstairs watching TV, our kids are hanging out online, often with total strangers.

The key is awareness. According to a study by McAfee, 70 percent of teens have hidden online activity from their parents by erasing their browser history, deleting messages, photos or videos, or using mobile apps like Calculator%, an app that appears to be a simple calculator but in reality is designed to be a password protected online “safe” where kids can hide photos.

Looking through your child’s phone may seem like an invasion of their privacy and in many ways it is. It’s the modern equivalent of reading their diaries. I’m not advocating spying on your kids – it makes them distrustful of you and gives them more incentive to hide what they’re up to – but as parents we have a responsibility to protect them.

Be open and honest. Experts recommend telling your kids you’ll be monitoring their activity either by looking at their phone or, if necessary, by using an app that reports activity back to you. It’s tough isn’t it? It’s that difficult balancing act between helicopter and free-range parenting.

If you do discover apps, photos, videos or any other content that crosses the line, again, don’t panic. Talk to your child about what you’ve found and why it’s inappropriate. Talk about the consequences. If you freak out and overreact, your kids will just get better at hiding things from you rather than changing their behavior. It’ll also make them less likely to come to you if they feel unsafe about something that’s happened online for fear they’ll get into trouble.

Let me reiterate, not every child is up to no good and social media in and of itself is not harmful. Parenting in a digital age means we have to work a little harder at keeping up with trends in technology in ways our parents didn’t need to. The rest is Parenting 101: you’re my child and it’s my job to keep you safe. That never changes.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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