If you're a parent with a kid old enough to use a smartphone, chances are you're worried about what they are doing on social media. You're right to be concerned, as there are plenty of threats facing kinds online. Online predators. Cyberbullying. Online scams. Inappropriate content. They all pose serious threats.
Social media can also be stressful for kids—it can cost them sleep and rob them of time that should be focused on their studies. Make no mistake, these aren't the only common threats to kids on social media, but they should be priorities for parents, education professionals, law enforcement officials, and social media platforms going forward, to better protect kids on social media.
The Threats to Kids on Social Media are Real
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 60% of U.S. teenagers (ages 13-17) have at least one social media profile. Additionally, children and teens are watching parents use devices and social media frequently and begin mimicking the behavior. According to Pew Research Center:
- 94% of parents of 13-to-17 year-olds own either a desktop or laptop computer.
- 76% own a smartphone.
- 72% use Facebook.
- 84% regularly go online with either a computer, tablet or mobile device.
Many parents struggle with how to protect their children on social media and what monitoring they should do to keep them safe. Thus, the risks to children using social media are high for a simple reason—kids are among the most active users of the Internet.
With pervasive use comes pervasive risk, and both adults and children need to be aware where kids are most vulnerable. Once those risks are identified, strategies can be enacted to minimize threats away from kids on social media, if not eliminated altogether.
There are some benefits for kids on social media. For example, social media sites like Facebook and Instagram enable friends and family members to stay connected when apart, as when a child is at summer camp, a child is attending school abroad, or when young friends are separated by family vacations. Social media also allows kids to fuel their passions for particular vocations and hobbies with like-minded individuals who share the same interests.
In stoking those interests on social media, kids and adults need to be ultra-cautious, as the following threats could cost lasting damage to younger social media users, and their families, too. With all that in mind, here are some of the biggest threats facing kids on social media:
1. Predators Targeting Children and Teens on Social Media
Unfortunately, too many online predators consider social media to be a gateway to connecting with unsuspecting children. In fact, the most online predatory behavior occurs both on social media and on gaming sites. This behavior is known as "online grooming" and it's when a predator (usually an adult) attempts to establish a relationship to gain a child or teen's trust. It can take place over a short time or be a long, drawn-out process. Initially, conversations online may seem innocent, but they often involve some type of deception.
Often predators will lie about their age or not reveal it at all. Many times the groomer will find out personal information about the child or teen and use that in the conversation to relate to him or her, such as music, clothing trends, a favorite sports team, or another activity or hobby the child likes.
These tactics lead children to believe that no one else can understand them or their situation like the groomer. After the child's trust develops, the groomer may use sexually explicit conversations to test boundaries and exploit a child's natural curiosity about sex. Predators often use pornography and child pornography to lower a child's inhibitions and use their adult status to influence and control a child's behavior.
2. Scams and Identity Theft Schemes Targeting Children on Social
Online scams targeted toward kids using social media are also an unfortunate reality. According to data from AARP, children from birth to 18 years of age are 35-51% more likely to be targeted or victimized by identity theft than adults.
In particular, online social media scammers crave a child's Social Security number, which they can use to open a fraudulent credit card or bank accounts. One potential sign of child identity theft includes credit card or loan offers arriving in the mail with your kid's name on them. Parents should firmly warn their kids never to provide any personal data over social media, and to block and report anyone who insists on obtaining personal information via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or other social media platforms.
If they have access to a credit or debit card, parents should also limit their kids' card usage to approved transactions (with direct supervision). If a child clicks on a Facebook quiz and provides personal information or visits a link that turns out to be a phishing site, they risk their personal information getting into the hands of identity thieves and even ending up on the dark web.
3. Cyber Bullying
Bullying on social media is enhanced by the fact that bullying-minded posters can act (and often do) anonymously. The U.S. government has a website and hotline dedicated to cyber-bullying online, at StopBullying.gov.
The website provides information and data from multiple government agencies, including helpful definitions and warning signs on cyber-bullying, along with what kids and families can do to prevent and respond to bullying. To talk to a crisis counselor trained in dealing with cyberbullying, call LIFELINE at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
4. Inappropriate and Harmful Content
Kids who use social media are also vulnerable to lewd and potentially dangerous content that can cause them harm. Exposure to sexual images, vulgar language, or exposure to other social media users who tout the use of drugs and alcohol pose a unique danger to children on social media. Parental controls, web site filter software and regular monitoring of a child's usage of social media are effective ways of limiting inappropriate content.
5. Sharing Images and Photos That Kids Will Regret
Kids frequently apply for acceptance to schools, jobs, awards, and internships. Increasingly, the colleges, businesses, and non-profits where kids apply track social media usage before granting any approvals. If a child posts inappropriate images, links or comments, that activity can come back to haunt them in the form of a rejected job, school, and financial award applications.
Kids on social media should be reminded by their parents and other authority figures to refrain from posting inappropriately on social media—and how doing so can lead directly to rejection letters from employers, schools and universities, and other opportunities.