A parent’s guide to kids and social media


Navigating the conversation around social media platforms can be difficult, especially with younger children. — Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

With more than seven in 10 Americans using social media, parents are facing an increasingly challenging question: How do you keep the digitally native generation safe?

Watchdogs, researchers and industry insiders have warned of the dangers of social media for young kids for years. Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen described the addictive features of apps and algorithms - and the negative affect they can have on body image. More people are filing lawsuits against social media companies for damage to their mental health, as well as for addiction.

TikTok isn’t free of dangers either. Fueled by the Covid-19 pandemic, TikTok is now the biggest app in the world, and it’s come to be known for challenges that go viral on the platform.

There are harmless ones, like choreographed dances and adding music under videos of pets. There are also more dangerous ones that proliferate on the app, like climbing unstable towers (the milk crate challenge), or kicking the legs out from under someone (the skull-breaker challenge). These can become a big a problem when underage kids bypass restrictions to sign up for the app.

A recent Bloomberg investigation uncovered at least 15 deaths of children under the age of 12 related to one dangerous challenge on TikTok: The blackout challenge, in which people choke themselves until they pass out. Some parents are now suing the social media giant for liability in their children’s deaths. You can read the investigation here.

Navigating the conversation around social media platforms can be difficult, especially with younger children. Two experts Marc Berkman, chief executive officer at the Organization for Social Media Safety, and Emily Mulder, program director at Family Online Safety Institute weighed in on keeping kids safe online.

Where do I start when it comes to talking to my kids?

The first step is for parents to educate themselves on the full scope of dangers on social media, such as sexual harassment and cyber bullying, according to Berkman.

"A lot of parents don't realize how many different social media related dangers are out there, how severe some of them are, or how common some of them are,” he said.

What conversations should I be having?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for families, said Mulder.

Begin asking questions like: What are your intentions in using the app? Why is it appealing to you? It will help give parents a sense of what they should keep an eye on with their kids, she said. Conversations should be ongoing too, starting when your child first starts using social media.

Talk about the dangers or problems that the child is likely to encounter. "If a child does not understand what a danger is, it’s much harder to either avoid that danger or most likely respond to it,” Berkman said.

Establish a set of values for your child. Explain that things like hate speech and cyberbullying are wrong and against your family and community values. It makes a significant difference in terms of protecting them.

Once I’ve talked to my child, how do I monitor them?

Berkman said the next thing would be to implement rules within your family for social media and adjust safety settings on your child’s devices. If your child violates your family rules, Berkman recommends a consequence that is proportional to the misbehavior, like temporarily losing access to social media or the device.

One caveat to restricting access too much is that it can prohibit children from learning how to navigate safely. "You want them to know what a healthy interaction looks like online, the same way you want them to know what that looks like in real life,” said Mulder.

What should I do if my child is not of age but wants to use social media?

The age requirements are there for a reason, said Mulder. She recommends parents look for other age-appropriate platforms that children can use if they’re insistent. She suggests looking for places where their exposure to negative content or comments will be limited.

However, if you are comfortable with your children using social media earlier, Beckman recommends additional precautions like using a third-party software. Apps like Bark, can monitor your child’s account and send parents alerts when the account comes across harmful content.

What should I do if I don’t want my child on social media just yet?

Berkman recommends a community-based approach where majority of parents, in a particular classroom or school grade, agree to keep their children off social media until they are ready. This will prevent your child from feeling excluded online and alleviate the peer pressure. – Bloomberg

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