Given Facebook’s recent whistleblower report and TikTok’s string of challenges leading to the destruction of school property nationwide, parents may find themselves dwelling more on the relationship between their children and social media.
Social media platforms including Youtube, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and numerous others are here to stay. Finding consistent, constructive, and respectful ways to talk about social media with your children is paramount to keeping them safe online now and through the rest of their lives.
The Pros of Social Media for Your Children
Social media is a powerful tool for children and teens to engage with the world.
It allows them to connect with friends they may not see every day, such as companions from summer camp, sports, or previous schools. Social media can be inspiring: it introduces kids to cultures from around the world, professions, and interests they may not have otherwise come across. Social media can be nurturing: it allows children with niche interests and abilities to connect with kids just like them. Social media also provides a common language, jokes, and trends. Group cohesion and belonging become increasingly crucial to children as they grow into their teens—social media allows young people to interact and make friends based on shared knowledge.
However, social media often proves a double-edged sword. Its cons and pitfalls are serious and should be contemplated by parents.
The Cons of Social Media for Your Children
Common and pressing, concerns around social media and children are issues of privacy, cyberbullying, inappropriate content, self-esteem, drugs, permanent photos and screenshots, and predatory adults.
Although most social media websites have age restrictions, you may be surprised by how many underage users are secretly on the sites. According to a 2017 UK study, 23% of children ages 8-11 reported having their own social media profile, despite the minimum age for most sites being 13. Social media users reached 74% in the 12-15 age group. While based on British children, those numbers are likely similar in the United States. Changing a birthdate and using a parent’s email may be easier for your child than you suspect.
Once on an app, kids may accidentally put themselves at risk. Children and teens are biologically unable to make the same executive decisions as adults, as their brains are still developing. The connections between actions and lasting consequences are harder for them to make if they consider them at all.
For example, kids may readily share pictures of themselves. As a rule, photos shared through social media never truly disappear. Other users can easily take screenshots of images on Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat, leading to personal photos being circulated perpetually, which children and teens may not realize.
Young people may also readily share personal information such as their address, full name, school, or even medical or mental ailments in their online bios, in messages, or accidentally through photos or videos.
Inappropriate content such as violent or adult images can be shared easily through social media. Even when media isn’t necessarily problematic, it often has adverse effects on children’s mental health. According to data recently leaked to the Wall Street Journal, 32% of teen girls reported that Instagram exacerbated their body-image issues. Other studies have linked disordered eating and negative body image to social media usage in young people—although it is essential to note that this is only a correlation, and causation isn’t clear.
Your children or young adults may not consider that there are people online who mean genuine harm. TikTok’s recent transparency report, for example, revealed that 41.3% of their removed videos were flagged for violating “minor safety guidelines,” containing elements like child grooming, sexually explicit content, or underage substance consumption.
Finally, drugs can be sold or exchanged between young users on various social media apps, especially Snapchat and Instagram, at times leading to serious bodily harm.
Social Media is Here to Stay
The aforementioned dangers of social media may feel overwhelming for parents. Seemingly, the cons far outweigh the pros. It may feel like the best decision to protect your child by preventing them from using these apps at all.
However, the reality is that your children will likely want to have a relationship with social media, just as you do. Simply forbidding your children from using social media may result in them using it secretly, which increases the possibility of negative, even harmful experiences.
The good news is that the potential dangers of social media can be significantly mitigated by communicating with and supervising your children—potentially even growing closer with them in the process.
How to Keep Your Kids Safe on Social Media
Consider the following when devising strategies to protect your children from the downsides of social media:
Familiarize yourself with the apps on your children’s devices and make it clear you need to approve additional apps before they’re downloaded—this can be ensured by using parental controls on your child’s device.
Carefully review the settings for each app, both in-app and on the device—many have privacy settings that can be enabled, location services that can be turned off, and additional restrictions. There are additional apps available that allow you to more closely supervise your child’s activity, such as Net Nanny or Bark, which can even scan messages sent or from your child’s device.
It is important to note that as your children grow, their need for privacy and boundaries will naturally increase—supervision apps and software are better suited for young children and have the potential to foster resentment and distrust among older teens.
Do Your Due Diligence:
Familiarize yourself with the apps on your child’s device. Research each app, even briefly, to understand what your child may access and what it is. For example, your kid may be excited to install a new game and neglect to tell you it is an online game that features chat or private messages. Take time to explore the app after the installation and check in every six months or so for updates or changes.
Set Strong Boundaries:
Limit the amount of time your kids can use social media each day, and be clear about rules on usage. For example, will it be a rule that you can only friend or follow people you know in real life? Communicate consequences and enforce them when rules are broken. Appropriate consequences may be reduced screen time, removal of devices for a period of time, or increased adult supervision.
Discuss and decide on social media rules as a family, with input from your children, to make them feel respected, part of the conversation, and therefore more likely to commit to and understand the agreed-upon restrictions. Children and teens may even venture their own boundaries, such as not having parents comment on their images or status or tag them in photos, which can be taken into account.
Children and teens are highly sensitive to hypocrisy and often have strong senses of fairness. Model good social media behavior by being conscientious of your own media usage and your presence online. By practicing what you preach, your children will be more apt to respect your rules and follow your good example.
How to Talk to Your Kids About Social Media
Talking to your children about social media is truly the most important aspect of keeping them safe.
Begin discussing social media and social media safety with your children from a young age, perhaps even before they truly begin using it. If you personally do not begin this conversation with your child, it is likely they will learn about social media from their peers, who may be sorely misinformed or unaware themselves.
It is key to foster a non-judgmental space for communication around social media. Ask your children questions about why they want to use specific apps, or what they hope to get out of them. If your children are exploring a new game, use the opportunity to allow them to teach you about it and explore the game with them. Be curious about their world and allow them to tell you about it. This can establish yourself as a trusted ally rather than purely a policing presence. Your children will feel more comfortable coming to you with questions, confusion, or anxiety about their experiences online.
However, creating a non-judgmental, communicative space around social media doesn’t mean an absence of rules or enforcement thereof—as a parent, you are still the authority figure. Consistently enforced and clearly delineated rules are not mutually exclusive to strong communication between parents and children.
Talk to your child about every app they download, even if the app seems innocuous—take extra care when the app involves interaction with other users through messaging or online play. Together with your kid, discuss trusted adults your child knows personally they can confide in if they find themself in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation online.
Be sure to educate your children on the nature of photos on the internet—ensure they understand that nothing can truly be deleted or taken down. Photos are forever.
Be honest and age-appropriate while explaining the dangers of strangers, especially adult strangers, online. If your children understand that you are protecting them from a real threat and not simply being arbitrary, it will be easier to enlist their help in keeping them safe. Urge them to be skeptical of strangers, never give out personal information to someone they don’t know and remember it’s easy for someone to pretend to be a child online.
Finally, nurture a sense of good social media stewardship and encourage your children to practice empathy online by not leaving mean comments on others’ posts.
Soliciting an open dialogue about social media with your child and truly listening to them, even from a young age, will create an environment where they trust, confide in you, and are significantly more likely to take your rules and recommendations to heart. Remain flexible, diligent, and open-minded as your child grows to help foster their social media skills and keep them safe for years to come.