I am a mom of five kids ranging in age from 3 to 17. I am a foster mom, a homeschooling mom, a stay-at-home mom, a work from home mom, a mommy blogger. Lots of mom titles. It makes me tired just thinking about all of my mom duties sometimes. And we’re ALL busy! I get it! You don’t have to tell me twice. We don’t have time for any more mom duties. But between keeping the kids alive, feeding them three times a day, running errands, keeping the house clean, and everything else we have to get done, we now have another thing to worry about: keeping kids safe online. And let me be clear: you do NEED to worry. You NEED to make time. You NEED to make this a priority. Because when I am not being a mom of some form or another, I work online as a social media manager.
I see your kids out there finding their way through the craziness that is the social media world and I am scared for them.
You and I didn’t grow up as teens in the social media era. This is all new to us and we don’t always know how to handle it.
Flashbacks to parents snooping in your room or reading private notes makes us want to give our kids all the privacy they desire. But this is different. You would never send your toddler out into the neighborhood on his own to cross streets, check for cars, and avoid bad guys, but many parents nowadays send their tweens and teens into the online world without any supervision at all. And let me tell you, it is dangerous. I see the dangers and I see parents who are very good parents, who just don’t know how to handle this new social media era. I also see parents being willfully ignorant of their kid’s online behavior.
And I see a lot of parents who want to be able to trust their kids.
All parents want to trust their kids and maybe, for the most part, your kids are totally trustworthy. But are their hundreds of online friends, who they may or may not know in real life, also trustworthy? Are there also pedophiles who are posing as handsome 16-year-old boys, asking for your teen’s address? Are there bullies at your kid’s school who are slyly chipping away at your son’s self-confidence with their cyber bullying? All teens have to eventually become mature enough to handle the online world without supervision, but this is a learning process for them. Along the way, just as when entering any new transition in life, they need guidance and supervision and they need to know you are watching.
Here are my tips for guiding your kids through the world of social media and keeping kids safe online:
Begin talking about the dangers of the internet early.
Make them aware that once they gain privileges of using the family computer and eventually their own phone that there will be rules and certain expectations. This way it won’t be a surprise to them that you will be checking up on them no matter what rules all of their friend’s parents have or don’t have regarding internet use.
Establish other outlets for privacy.
Explain to your kids that if they want privacy from you, they are welcome to keep a journal or diary that you will not read, but as far as their activity online, it will not be private. They can have privacy in private spaces, such as their bedroom, but there is no such thing as privacy on the internet and if it isn’t private to the rest of the world, it is not going to be private to you.
Private social media accounts give parents and kids a false sense of security.
Anything posted online or texted can be saved with a screen shot and then shared across all of the internet. This happens because of bullying, relationships ending badly, friendships breaking up, etc. Apps such as Snapchat where conversations “disappear” only give the illusion of secrecy. One bad choice in sending an inappropriate text or picture privately to one person can end up causing years of embarrassment or worse.
Be sure that kids understand the permanent nature of sending something out online.
Once it is there, it is much harder to get rid of. Employers regularly check social media accounts before hiring now and an inappropriate online presence can prevent your teen from getting hired, among other problems.
Be aware of which apps and games are downloaded to family computers and ipads.
Recently there have been many disturbing stories about pedophiles using certain kid’s games to communicate inappropriately with kids while the child’s parents assume they are simply playing an innocent game. Any games or apps that allow messaging between players can be dangerous, as your child may be in communication with adults posing as other children.
Make it simpler with home device management for all ages.
Use a device such as Circle by Disney, which allows you to set time limits for each kid in the household, set bedtimes for devices, and filter content based on age. Each kid in the family can get different privileges based on their maturity level. Parents can see how much time is spent on different social media channels or websites. If nothing else, have some kind of filter set up, as kids can stumble upon inappropriate websites purely by accident by typing a website wrong or clicking on something innocent looking.
Cellphone agreements with kids.
When your child is old enough for a cellphone, have them sign a cellphone contract or at the very least use it as a talking point to ensure you have covered all the major topics. I like this cellphone contract by Josh Shipp.
Know your kids’ social media account logins.
This is one of the biggest mistakes I see parents make. Parents have an Instagram account, their child has an Instagram account, they can see what they post, so they assume they are monitoring it closely enough. Unless you log in to their account though, you cannot see what they see, what their friends are posting, or all of the private, direct messages they are sending and receiving.
Get to know who they communicate with online.
Just as in real life, the more you know about their friends and what is going on in their life, the more you can help them. You can better relate to the pressure of being a teen in the social media world. Imagine when you were a teen having a publicly list of how many “friends” you have. Remind kids that social media can be fun for keeping up with family and friends, but it is not a popularity contest. Teens these days sometimes have thousands of friends on one social media account, adding and adding friends who they don’t even know, just to appear popular. We have a rule that if you want to be friends with someone on social media, then you have to know them in real life.
Schools and law enforcement agencies are now taking cyberbullying and sexting very seriously.
Most states have laws now against anyone under 18 sending sexually explicit messages. There can be serious consequences for both of these, and it’s good for your teen to remember that their friends or boyfriends/girlfriends they communicate with might also have parents monitoring their communication. If your teen operates under the assumption that someone could always be checking up on them, then they are less likely to send messages or post something online that will embarrass them or land them in real legal trouble.
You don’t need to log in and spend hours a day checking all their social media accounts (thank goodness).
The fact that you know the passcode to their phone and their logins to their social media accounts, checking it randomly is probably enough. You can also use a service such as Bark that acts as a watchdog search engine for all their social media accounts. It sends you an alert via email or text message if it detects a potential issue, such as cyberbullying, drug-related content, or sexting.
Finally, as your kids get older and learn to maneuver through the social media world and have proven that they are responsible, you can begin to decrease your monitoring.
Some of you are probably now thinking I am the typical helicopter mom that does not allow my kids to have any freedom, but generally I’m not a worrier and believe in free-range parenting. My kids have a lot of freedom, giving them chances to make mistakes and then learn from them. But I believe this aspect of parenting is different. The mistakes kids make can have real, permanent effects on our kids’ lives. I can’t protect them from it all, but I can do my best to be aware of the dangers, make them aware of the consequences of bad decisions, and put some safety nets in place.