7 Ways to Protect Your Kids on Social Media

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The entire experience of social media aims to get people more connected, but you may feel totally out of the loop when it comes to your own kids' online activity. Protecting your kids on social media often starts with a simple conversation, and there are other measures you can put in place for added peace of mind. Your kids might see social media differently than you do—maybe very differently—so it helps to view the virtual world from their shoes.

The more you learn about the social media platforms your kids are on, the better you'll recognize the unique risks and how to keep them safe there. For example, you can learn a lot about what your kids see every day if you spend some time scrolling through the "discover" page on Instagram or TikTok's "for you" page. Once you understand more of their online world, you can protect your children on social media, just like you do offline.

1. Keep an Open Dialogue With Your Children

A huge chunk of young people's social lives now takes place online—and you can either work with that fact, or against it. Communicate with your kids about their social media use and openly discuss your expectations and limits for their online behavior.

These discussions are an opportunity for you to learn from them and to impart the important parenting stuff: safety, guidance and supervision. You can teach them about using secure passwords and not posting personal information—and simultaneously get them to explain the newest TikTok challenge to you. You may never be able to shield them from everything or know every detail of their online lives, but keeping the conversation going means you won't miss out on the essential safety talks. Making the rules clear, and frequently reinforcing them, also means they won't be able to say they didn't know any better.

2. Educate Children on the Risks of Social Media

In addition to going over ground rules, it's important to discuss with your children the risks the internet poses. This will help them understand why your rules are important and could make it easier for them to spot warning signs. They may know more than you do about the latest trends and memes online, but kids aren't always aware of the threats that are out there.

Links and downloads can lead them to phishing scams, viruses or malware. Remind them that not everyone is who they say they are online, and to never meet an internet friend in real life without extreme caution and parental supervision. Also tell them about risks of fraud and identity theft and how to avoid them—and that they may be even more susceptible because of their age.

Make sure they understand that once something is written or posted online, it's out in the world, for better or worse. Encourage them to tell you immediately about any strangers who reach out to them online—particularly anyone older or who makes your kid feel at all uncomfortable. Let them know that you're a sounding board and guiding hand for them, and that they won't get in trouble for coming to you with questions or concerns.

3. Follow Age Requirement Guidelines

While you probably want to keep your kids off social media as long as you can, that probably won't be forever. Sites that collect data from their users have to follow U.S. federal law that requires them to notify parents and gain consent before allowing anyone younger than 13 to sign up; it's part of a government effort to keep kids safer online. For instance, TikTok is one of the many platforms with this age requirement, and they say they'll take action if they catch people violating the rule.

However, it's easy for kids to lie about their age when signing up for accounts. As a parent, it falls on you to supervise what your kids are doing online and enforce your own rules with your family. If your kid is of age and wants to join a platform before you feel they are old enough to do so (say, if all of their friends already have an account), consider extra ways to limit and monitor their online activity such as parental controls.

4. Set Ground Rules for Social Media Use

Have a conversation with your kids about what they're allowed to post, the accounts they follow and how often they'll be allowed to use social media. Lay out your ground rules as a team, and clearly communicate the penalties you decide on. They should know that there are consequences for their behavior online, just like in the real world; if they mess up, they'll need to take responsibility and accept those consequences.

Try to be considerate and a little flexible here. A simple rule that seems reasonable to you could feel like the end of the world to a kid. For example, your desire to shut down social media use after dinner may shut them out of chats with their best friends who get online every night at that time.

5. Stay Up to Date on Your Child's Privacy Settings

This is one of those times when being familiar with the social media platforms your children use will come in handy. Some platforms make profiles public by default, so it's best to check out their privacy customization options. In general, you'll want to check back on each platform's privacy settings regularly, since settings can be changed at any time. Each platform will have unique settings you can delve into, but the main points to cover are relatively simple.

  • Location privacy: Apps can share the geographic location of your child, and you probably want to keep that feature disabled.
  • Private profile: If a social media platform has this option, encourage your kids to use it. The less information a stranger can view publicly about your children, the better. Also, talk to them about not accepting friend requests from people they don't know. Once a user is "friends" with your kid on social media, they can see everything they've ever posted.
  • Personal information: Use privacy settings to ensure the platforms don't showcase your kid's real name, age, birthday, phone number or other information that can be used to target them. Keep tabs on what they're posting as well—for instance, let them know that it's not OK to publicly post your home address to invite people to a birthday party.
  • Content filters: It's all too easy for children to stumble across sexually explicit or otherwise inappropriate content online. Set their profiles to block at least a portion of the age-inappropriate social media out there. Parental blocks you implement on their device or on your home internet network can also help with this.

6. Consider Products That Help You Monitor Online Activity

This may make you feel like you're looking over your child's shoulder, but the key is to keep up that open dialogue we mentioned: Communicate with your kids that your monitoring is safety-centered and go over the "how" and "why" of your actions. This way, you can stay on top of things without your kids feeling like you're reading their diary or invading every communication they have with their friends.

Products like Bark and Securly can make for a good monitoring middle ground. These tools can oversee your children's online activity, filter content and alert you if anything seems fishy—such as a stranger sending an inappropriate message that needs your attention, or a post that shows too much sensitive personal information.

7. Utilize Cyberbullying Resources

A 2018 Pew Research study found that 59% of teens in America have dealt with some form of cyberbullying. And, for the most part, the teens surveyed felt like their parents were the best defense against it, rather than efforts of schools or lawmakers. So, as a parent, your role is twofold: First, keep them safe from online trolls and unkind peers; second, stop them from being the bully themselves.

Talk to your child about the fact that their own and others' virtual words can be just as cruel and destructive as bullying in real life. Teach them to treat online interactions accordingly, and to tell you about any instances of cyberbullying they encounter. Keep an eye on your child's social media and cellphone usage to spot red flags of cyberbullying early on, and stay on top of resources that can help you confront it. Here are a few good sources:

The Bottom Line

Your kids are part of a generation that never knew what life was like before the internet. Since they'll be online from a much younger age than you probably were, it's important to teach them about the risks from a young age, including predators, scams and cyberbullying. As a parent, you can guide and supervise your kids as they navigate the ever-changing online landscape, making sure they are confident and safe as digital citizens.