9 Things Parents Should Teach Kids About Social Media

9 Things Parents Should Teach Kids About Social Media

Experts share their best tips for keeping teens and tweens safe and happy online.

By: Leah Maxwell

Like it or not, social media is here to stay, and as parents raising the first generation of children who often make their debuts on social media before their cords are even cut, it’s critical we know the ins and outs of online sharing -- if not for our own sake then certainly for our kids. We asked experts for tips on how to help our sons and daughters navigate the world of social media, in hopes that being online will be a safe, healthy, happy experience for parents and kids alike. Here are their top nine things to keep in mind when your kids go online:

1. Set limits. Social media is always on, but that doesn’t mean your kids should be; don’t let them waste some of the best years of their lives in front of a screen. Parents need to make sure their teens are spending more time with humans and less time with screens,” says Garth Lasater, MSW. Social media can be all consuming, so parents should help balance that by taking family outings, making sure their kids stay active in sports and other extracurriculars, and even requiring all devices be shut off for family dinners -- parents included. Even though social media is social by definition, “There is no substitute for real-world relationships,” Lasater says.

2. The Internet is forever. Teens and tweens aren’t developmentally wired to assess long-term consequences, says Katie Greer, a national Internet safety expert and CEO of KL Greer Consulting, so it’s up to parents to remind them that what goes on social media stays on social media. (Even if you delete it, your posts can be preserved through the magic of caching and screen shots.) “Gone are the days of ripping up a note to a friend or a picture of an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend,” Greer says. “What’s shared/posted/commented/texted stays [online] and can’t be taken back.” Talk to kids about both the short-term and long-term consequences of their online behavior so they understand they’re not just sharing snapshots of themselves at the moment, they’re creating lasting portraits of themselves for the future.

3. Social media is the new first impression. Most kids use social media to enhance connections with people they already know in real life, but what they might not consider is that their online profiles will be accessible to people they have yet to meet. “Teens (and adults for that matter) need to know that the Internet is the new résumé,” says Lasater. “Whatever they post can and probably will be used to check up on their reputation down the road. If you don’t want a future college admissions counselor, employer, date, in-law, or judge seeing it, then don’t post it,” he advises. “This takes a lot of self-control and foresight, and parents can play a huge role in educating their kids.”

4. Anonymity is an illusion. “ Even if you think you’re writing an anonymous post about someone, beware. These posts can be traced back to you,” warns relationship expert and media personality Dr. Gilda Carle. Kids who think they can hide behind online handles and avatars need to know they’re always at risk of being found out and should behave accordingly. Teens and tweens should also understand how to protect sensitive information about themselves, particularly their daily whereabouts. For safety’s sake, location trackers within apps should be disabled in the settings panel, and kids should be careful about posting personal information in general, lest they unwittingly give complete strangers a very clear picture of their life, including where they go to school, where they live, and where they hang out, says Bob Lotter, creator of My Mobile Watchdog, ­a child monitoring app for parents. When it comes to sharing personal details online, less is more.

5. Protect your privacy. Most popular social media platforms allow users to change privacy settings that help control who is allowed to view an account, which in theory means no unwanted eavesdroppers on your kids’ posts. “Teens need to know to adjust their privacy settings so that they’re sharing pictures and comments with friends, not the entire world,” says Melissa Maypole, head of CSR for Qustodio, software that helps parents monitor their children’s activity. “They also need to know that these privacy settings are not foolproof -- anything posted online has the potential to become public and permanent.” Further, just as parents keep tabs on whom their kids are hanging out with at school and on weekends, they should be aware of whom their sons and daughters are interacting with online, even behind locked accounts. “Know who is in your child’s life -- online and offline,” urges Lotter. “Supervise children on the Internet just as you would monitor what movies and TV shows they watch, or what places they go with their friends. Know instantly when someone new enters their life, and make a decision whether or not it is a safe person.”

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6. Parents have a right to know. Experts agree that parents should be actively involved in their kids’ online lives and that they should be open and honest about their roles as social media chaperones. “Never spy on your child,” advises Lotter. “Keeping them safe requires their cooperation.” Rather than secretly monitoring kids and hoping to catch them if they slip up, Lotter says parents should work with their children to set ground rules for online activity and monitoring that are appropriate for the child’s age and maturity level. Let your children know that they are ultimately responsible for their online activity, but that you are watching.

7. Open communication is key. Although kids should understand that access to the Internet is a privilege instead of a right, some experts warn that threatening to cut kids off from social media entirely could backfire. Lotter encourages parents to make it clear to kids that they won’t be banned from the Internet if they confess to experiencing problems or threats online: “To a child, their cell phone is their lifeline. The thought of losing their phone very likely will hinder a child’s decision to confide in a parent when they experience a problem, [so] to ensure your child feels confident in sharing with you, make an agreement that you are not going to take their cell phone away if they come forward with a problem involving their online activity.” Maypole agrees: “Sheltering them from every potential risk or banning them from social media altogether is not only nearly impossible to do, it may even be detrimental to kids. The better approach is to foster open communication with your teen, providing guidance, support, and most importantly a safe place for them to come if things go wrong.” The best way to know if your child is having negative experiences online is if the child feels comfortable telling you about it, so make it a habit to talk with your kid about his or her experiences on social media, both the positive and the negative. That said, abusing online privileges should come with appropriate consequences: “Parents can make it clear that this is a trust issue and that any violations of that trust will increase scrutiny and oversight,” says Lasater.


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8. It’s not all bad. You don’t have to look far to find horror stories about social media gone wrong, but don’t let that scare you into locking away your computers and smartphones (or your kids) until they turn 18. In today’s connected world, a parent’s job is not to isolate children from online dangers but to teach them how to navigate that world with intelligence and confidence. “When it comes to teens and tweens and social media, they need to be encouraged and empowered,” says Greer. If used responsibly, social media can be an incredibly powerful tool, not just for communicating with peers but also for creating a positive personal brand. “There’s a lot at stake,” says Maypole, but “the flip side of this, of course, is that savvy teens have the opportunity to put their best foot forward online and tip the odds in their favor for success later on in life.” There’s a lot of good to social media, so don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

9. Trust your gut. The online world is huge and overwhelming, and although it can be hard to stay on top of everything your kids are doing on the dozen social media platforms they may be involved in, it’s critical that you try. “Even if you don't know exactly how a particular social media platform works, you should feel comfortable relying on common sense and parental instincts,” says Maypole. Even if you use software and other tools to monitor and protect your kids online, moms and dads remain the most powerful force in teaching the next generation how to be safe and responsible digital citizens. “Parents cannot expect the technology to do the dirty work for them,” says Maypole. “Limits are set by parents, not by computers.” If something seems off, but you’re not sure if you’re overreacting, try talking to other parents or a school counselor about your concerns. Who knows, the best advice might even come from social media itself.

How do you monitor your kids’ social media activity?

Leah Maxwell is a book editor, freelance writer, cereal addict, wife, and mom to two young boys. She has been blogging at A Girl and a Boy since 2003.

Image ©iStock.com/kali9

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