General Health

Children and social media: What parents can do to keep their kids safe online

Maria Isabella Pontoriero (MIP), Human Trafficking Social Worker
Children and social media: What parents can do to keep their kids safe online

As a licensed social worker at the New Orleans Children’s Advocacy Center & Audrey Hepburn CARE Center at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, I work with trafficking survivors and train community members in human trafficking response and prevention. My expertise and work in this field has given me unique insight on the impact of social media on the lives of children and teens, and how to talk to them about social media. It’s an important topic that I recently discussed with caregivers during a Facebook Live session. 

Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram have become a big part of young people’s social and creative lives. Children and teens use it to stay connected with friends and family, build new friendships, express themselves, and interact with other people who share similar interests. The internet and social media are also great ways for kids to learn. Several parents tell me how their little ones learned their ABCs, colors and how to spell their name using age-appropriate apps online. However, the kids of today find things that you may not see or monitor until it is too late. If you try to learn about every app out there you will drive yourself crazy, so focus on learning about the apps that your child is using.  

In my conversations with parents, I always like to acknowledge that it’s not easy raising children in the era of social media. When I was a kid before the social media craze, I was a highly active child. My parents would have loved for there to be social media to keep me occupied. Now we are at a point where social media has taken over, and there are potential risks and dangers that come along with it. 

There are many positive things about the internet like being a resource for learning and connections, but there are also potential risks for children and teenagers if they do not use social media safely. Social media is an inevitable and useful tool, here’s how you can help your kids create healthy habits while on social media! 

Potential dangers of social media 

Online predators use social media, too. They use popular online platforms to recruit victims for sexual abuse and other forms of exploitation. They do this by “grooming” their victims to gain their trust before initiating a sexual conversation then potentially moving their meetings offline. Children and teenagers are being targeted and recruited via social media, online dating, and gaming platforms, where their personal information and their locations are readily available. 

There is a myth that most people who are sexually abusing children or meeting them online are complete strangers. In actuality, most people who exploit children and meet them online are people the child already knows or someone who has gained the child’s trust after a few messages. As caregivers, it is essential to build a foundation for your kids at an early age, and teach them the possible warning signs of online exploiters. People who overly compliment your child’s appearance and “like” their pictures a lot, people who are asking your child for favors, or people offering them enticing gifts such as money, toys, packages or anything of value should raise suspicion. It’s important for parents to have open communication regularly about online safety with their children to keep them safe. Don’t make this scary! Try to instill in your child that social media is a big responsibility that they are taking on. 

Start the conversation early 

As parents and caregivers, it can be hard to keep track of what your child is doing online if you don’t have regular conversations with them. If your child is on social media, it is important to talk to them about what social media is, set some healthy boundaries and perimeters for their media usage, and help them develop healthy habits. 

Parents should begin talking to their children about social media as soon as they are presented with an opportunity to use any type of technology. There are ways to have age-appropriate conversations about social media or about technology even as young as five years old. For example, you can remind them about the importance of respecting each other online and not trusting everyone that they meet online. As your kids become teenagers, you can expand these conversations to include broader topics. You can start talking to them about the dangers of meeting people online and the consequences of “sexting” where inappropriate texts or images of a sexual nature are sent back and forth. Sexting can lead to serious consequences like public humiliation, getting in trouble with their school, and in some cases, leading to law enforcement investigations if the images are leaked. 

As parents, it is important to know the social media apps that your children are using. You can do this by asking casual questions like, “What is your favorite app? Who do you talk to when you are playing games? What kind of pictures are you posting online?” By discussing these things regularly with your children, the conversations become normalized. They become part of everyday dialogue. By engaging your children more, they will perceive that you are open-minded, and will be more comfortable reaching out to you if something is wrong. 

Internet skills require the same time, effort, and practice as any other acquired skill. When teaching kids how to be safe online, I compare this to teaching them about wearing a seatbelt— it’s a learned behavior. Telling your child to wear a seatbelt is not enough. You need to explain why they must wear a seatbelt to ensure their safety, so they don’t get hurt if there is an accident. If you don’t wear a seatbelt, there are negative consequences. It’s the same concept when teaching kids how to be safe on social media. They need to understand the potential dangers if they do not use social media safely, and the steps they can take to protect themselves. As they get older, these learned behaviors will become second nature to them and they will feel equipped to take on the large responsibility of having an online presence. 

Set ground rules  

When you give your child a responsibility so big as having an electronic device or accessing the Internet, it is important to set ground rules on their social media use. By engaging them in these conversations, you will help your children build safe and healthy social media behaviors that will impact all facets of their life. The goal is to teach your kids how to make wise decisions early on. 

Make sure you provide clear guidelines on what social media apps they can and cannot use, and what content and photos they can and cannot post on social media. This will be different for every family. Some families may be comfortable with their child sharing photos – some families may not. Make sure you know where your family stands. Information that is not appropriate to post on social media are phone numbers, passwords, addresses, and other personal information like where your children go to school. It is also important to remind your teens not to post revealing photos that they may perceive as ‘harmless’ on social media. 

Consider limiting screen time at home to a few hours a day for children to ensure they are still getting enough physical activity and face-to-face interactions. By doing this, you are teaching them to set boundaries with their social media use and encouraging them to stay active by engaging in other activities, like playing outdoors or hanging out with their family. You can make this a family activity too, so that all family members will have designated time to unplug from social media. Modeling behavior for your children is also an excellent tool for teaching them, as they do what they see you do. 

Report any inappropriate behaviors. Children need to let parents know about improper behaviors encountered on social media, and it is important for parents to learn how to report inappropriate content on each app. If somebody sends your child inappropriate pictures or asks your child to send inappropriate pictures, you need to report that to the app itself. You also need to report the inappropriate incident to law enforcement to prevent this problem from happening again. While it’s important to educate yourself on the social media apps that your children are using, I always recommend looking at the privacy settings on the social media apps. You should know what information is public and what you can easily make private. 

While we would all love to wrap our arms around our kids and protect them from everything that goes on in the world, the reality is you can’t protect them from everything. Instead, we can teach them how they can make responsible choices in their lives by creating that foundation for them early on.