Keeping kids safe on social media: What parents need to know to protect their children

At what age should children be on social media? Should they even bother with it? If they aren't, will they be social pariahs? Should parents monitor their conversations? Does parental control work?

Navigating social media as a parent – ​​not to mention as a child – isn't easy. Using social media platforms is still the norm for most American teens, with the Pew Research Center reporting that 58% of teens are daily users of TikTok, with 17% describing their TikTok use as almost constant. About half of teens use Snapchat and Instagram daily, with near-constant usage at 14% and 8%, respectively.

But parents – and even some teens themselves – are increasingly concerned about the effects of social media use on young people. Lawmakers have taken notice and have held multiple congressional hearings on children's online safety. But even when there is apparent unity between the two parties, making laws and regulating companies takes time. To date, no regulations have been adopted.

What should parents – and teens – do in the meantime? Here are some tips on staying safe, communicating and setting boundaries on social media – for both children and their parents.

There's technically already a rule that bans kids under 13 from using platforms that advertise to them without parental consent: the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which passed in 2000, before today's teens even were born.

The goal was to protect children's online privacy by, among other things, requiring websites and online services to post clear privacy policies and obtain parental consent before collecting personal information about their children. To comply, social media companies have generally banned children under the age of 13 from signing up for their services.

But times have changed and online privacy is no longer the only concern when it comes to children being online. There is bullying, intimidation, the risk of developing eating disorders, suicidal thoughts or worse.

For years, there has been a push among parents, educators and tech experts to wait to give children phones – and access to social media – until they are older, such as the 'Wait Until 8th' pledge where parents sign a pledge to not to do that. give their children a smartphone until 8th grade, or about 13 or 14 years old. Some wait even later, like 16 or 17 years.

But neither social media companies nor the government have done anything concrete to raise the age limit.

“There's not necessarily a magical age,” said Christine Elgersma, a social media expert at the nonprofit Common Sense Media. But, she added, “13 is probably not the best age for kids to be on social media.”

The laws currently being proposed include a blanket ban on social media for under-13s. The problem? There's no easy way to verify someone's age when they sign up for apps and online services. And the apps popular with teens today are made primarily for adults. Companies have added some safeguards over the years, Elgersma noted, but these are piecemeal changes and not fundamental rethinks of services.

“Developers need to start building apps with kids in mind,” she says.

Some tech executives, celebrities like Jennifer Garner and parents from all walks of life have taken refuge ban their children from social media altogether. While the decision is a personal one that depends on each child and parent, some experts say it could lead to isolation of children, who could be left out of activities and discussions with friends that take place on social media or chat services.

Another hurdle: Kids who've never been on social media may feel ill-equipped to navigate the platforms if they're suddenly given free rein the day they turn 18.

Start early, earlier than you think. Elgersma suggests that parents review their own social media feeds with their children before they are old enough to be online and have open discussions about what they see. How would your child handle a situation where a friend of a friend asks him to send a photo? Or when they see an article that makes them so angry, do they just want to share it right away?

For older children, Elgersma says to approach them with curiosity and interest, “by asking what their friends are doing or just not asking direct questions like, 'What are you doing on Instagram?' but rather, “Hey, I heard this influencer is really popular.” “And even if your kid rolls his eyes, it could be a window.”

Don't say things like “Turn that thing off!” if your child has been scrolling for a long time, says Jean Rogers, director of the nonprofit Fairplay's Screen Time Action Network.

“That's disrespectful,” Rogers said. “It doesn't respect that they have a whole life and a whole world in that device.”

Instead, Rogers suggests asking them questions about what they're doing on their phone, and seeing what your child is willing to share.

Children are also likely to respond to parents and educators “pulling back the curtains” on social media and the sometimes insidious tools companies use to keep people online and engaged, Elgersma said. Watch a documentary like “The Social Dilemma” that examines algorithms, dark patterns, and dopamine feedback cycles of social media. Or read with them how Facebook and TikTok make money.

“Kids love knowing about these things, and it will give them a sense of power,” she said.

Rogers says most parents have success taking their children's phones at night to limit scrolling. Occasionally, kids will try to sneak the phone back, but it's a strategy that usually works because kids need a break from the screen.

“They need an excuse with their peers to not be on the phone at night,” Rogers said. “They can blame their parents.”

Parents may need to set their own limits on phone use. Rogers said it's helpful to explain what you're doing when you have a phone in your child's hand so they understand you're not aimlessly scrolling through sites like Instagram. Tell your child you're checking email from work, looking up a recipe for dinner, or paying a bill so they understand you're not just there for fun. Then tell them when you plan to put the phone down.

Social media platforms that target children have been adding an increasing number of parental controls as they face increasing scrutiny over children's safety. For example, Meta revealed parental supervision Last year, tools became available that let parents set time limits, see who their child is following or is being followed, and track how much time the minor spends on Instagram. Parents cannot see the content of messages.

But as with similar tools on other platforms like TikTok, the feature is optional and both children and parents must agree to use it. To get kids to agree to set the controls, Instagram sends a message to teens after they block someone, encouraging them to let their parents monitor their account. The idea is to get children's attention when they are more open to parental guidance.

By making the feature optional, Meta aims to “balance teen safety and autonomy” and spark conversations between parents and their children.

Such features can be useful for families where parents are already involved in their child's online life and activities. Experts say this is not the reality for many people.

US Surgeon General Murthy said last year it's unfair to expect parents to manage what their children do with rapidly evolving technology that is 'fundamentally changing how their children think about themselves, how they build friendships, how they experience the world – and technology for that matter that previous generations never had to do' manage.”

Putting all that on the shoulders of parents, he said, “is simply not fair.”

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