Is safe social media for kids realistic? Things have drastically changed since the time when many of today's new parents likely got acquainted with social media for the first time—let's call that 2005, when Myspace was the hip social network, Facebook was barely a year on the scene, and a mere 5% of American adults used social media. Today, 72% of Americans (and 97% of teens) use social media, according to the Pew Research Center, and the most popular social media platforms can also be the most dangerous to kids.
Potential threats to children on social media include age-inappropriate content, sexual exploitation, scams and cyberbullying. Luckily, if you recognize the top dangers for kids on social media, you can keep them safer online.
Top 8 Threats to Kids on Social Media
Here are some of the threats to keep in mind when your kids get online:
- Child predators
- Scams, including identity theft schemes
- Inappropriate and dangerous content
- Sharing posts they'll regret later
- Cyberbullying and harassment
- Social media addiction
- Exposure to targeted ads and marketing
1. Predators Targeting Children
In 2020, reports of online child predator incidents spiked more than 97%, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. And, according to the FBI, each offender may sexually extort dozens—sometimes hundreds—of young victims.
It can start with a casual friend request or message. Predators manipulate kids with assurances and supposedly shared interests. They later play on their natural curiosity and pivot into sexual territory. Eventually, through this "grooming," they gain trust and exploit their victims. Make sure your kids feel comfortable telling you if an online stranger contacts them. Tell them what to do if they encounter a threat, and you should report it immediately to keep your child—and others—safe.
2. Identity Theft Schemes and Scams
Scammers and fraudsters also lurk on social media, and a simple friend request or follow request can be all they need to connect with your kids. Most adults have enough experience with scammers, robocalls and phishing emails to know not to dole out their Social Security numbers or click suspicious links. However, thousands of minors encounter scams like identity theft annually, often stemming from social media. You can check up on your child's security with Experian's free Child ID Scan to confirm their information is safely stored and teach them the importance of keeping their personal information private.
3. Inappropriate Content
Violence, racism, drugs and sex can all find their way into unprotected social media feeds. How bad can it be? Well, Facebook and YouTube moderators (who sift through flagged content) sign forms acknowledging their risk of post-traumatic stress disorder from work. Fine-tune the parental controls on each app and consider monitoring measures like Bark or Securly. If dangerous content slips through, be ready to discuss what they've seen. The last thing you want to do is punish them for coming to you for help if online content distresses them.
4. Sharing Posts and Images Kids Will Regret Later
Kids may not realize the long-term consequences of what they choose to put online. After all, it's often as simple as applying a filter and pressing the "post" icon. Sharing personal information can be bad enough, as it can open the door to scammers and predators, but children can underestimate the reach of their choices on social media. Explain to them that even though they have the option to delete what they post, anything put online should be considered permanent. Their posts can easily be screenshotted or otherwise downloaded and shared publicly by someone else, whether or not they want it to be. Their posts can follow them for a long time and potentially compromise future education or career opportunities. Keep up on their privacy settings and monitor what they share online.
Fake profiles and bots spread everything from fake political info to bogus health science, and your kids could see blatant lies disguised as facts daily. Make sure you check out what info gets funneled into your children's newsfeeds and discuss it. You can let them in on how to fact-check and locate reliable sources of information. A conversation on this topic can be started as easily as asking "Where did you hear about that?" the next time your child brings up something that sounds outlandish.
Cyberbullies use their online influence to bring down their peers. According to a Pew Research study, nearly 60% of teenagers have encountered bullying or harassment online. These days, kids create school-specific gossip profiles, carelessly send cruel messages and post damaging materials about each other. The nature of social media can cause children to act out, but you can teach them how to control their behavior and counteract cyberbullying. Help them to feel safe coming to you with concerns so you can help them report cyberbullies right away.
7. Social Media Addiction
Social media is fundamentally curated to keep kids scrolling. Expert psychologists tailor social sites with persuasive design, a psychological formula that trains social networkers to stay plugged in. By exploiting children's social tendencies, platforms can hook users from a young age and keep them firmly reeled in. From there, it can build to something resembling an addiction that can affect decision-making and, when removed, even trigger withdrawal. Your best option here is often to limit time online. You'll lessen the instant gratification they get from the sites, but their dependency on them will diminish as well.
8. Exposure to Targeted Ads and Marketing
More time stuck on the app means more time exposed to advertising that targets users with highly personalized marketing. Young kids have a harder time distinguishing advertisements from entertainment, which makes them more susceptible to laser-focused advertising efforts. If this makes you uncomfortable, there's bad news: You cannot fully prevent your children from being exposed to this kind of advertising on social media. You may not even know it's happening to you or your children. You can lessen exposure by customizing ad preferences, turning on privacy options and downloading opt-out add-ons.
Keeping Kids Safe From the Dangers of Social Media
To help keep your kids safe on social media, set ground rules, teach them about dangers and pilot them to reduce social media access (perhaps drastically). Consider curtailing their app access on mobile devices so they only have access at home, where you can better monitor their time online. Or, you just might want to take a cue from social media developers (including the founding president of Facebook) and keep your kids as far from the platforms as possible. If that doesn't feel realistic, at least promote open communication so your child won't be afraid to come to you if they encounter a dangerous situation when they are online.