Father with his son using a tablet
Father and son using a tablet

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a whopping 80 percent of children and teens today use some form of social media. That’s why parents need to stay social media-savvy, especially since many of those young people are now sharing more information about themselves on social networks than they have in the past.

The study found that 22 percent of teenagers log onto their favorite social media sites more than 10 times a day, and that 75 percent own cell phones. This level of engagement online can lead to cyberbullying, peer pressure, sexting, and other forms of online harassment.

“The digital world is an evolving landscape that parents have to learn to navigate,” said Kathleen Clarke-Pearson, M.D., a coauthor of the report.

Here are 10 tips to help parents navigate the social media platform.

  1. Get educated.

Familiarizing yourself with popular social platforms will give you a better understanding of how each service works. You may also want to create your own profile on these sites and apps to experience the networks firsthand.

Kids have gained a mastery of technology so quickly and can easily pick up on the nuances that any new gadget has, far more easily that adults can in some cases. It is every parent’s responsibility to know exactly which key features are included in the gadgets our kids are using.

“This can be a humbling experience,” said Stephen Balkam, founding CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute. “You may find that you had no idea that the Sony Playstation Portable that you bought your 11-year-old last Christmas had a web browser. Or that your 5-year-old son (with the help of his older brother) has managed to create an avatar on Club Penguin and regularly goes for in-world pizzas with his other penguin friends.”

Immerse yourself in the technology so you know how to create a profile, “friend” your child, and be a part of his or her online life. Your child may insist that you don’t embarrass them by posting on their wall, but you still get a window into their world.

  1. Set age limits.

If you don’t currently allow your children to use social media, it’s a good idea to them know at what age they can start.

“When kids feel ‘it’s never going to happen,’ they are more likely to set up their own, secret profile,” said Mark Loewen, parenting coach and owner of Launch Pad Counseling, a counseling practice that specializes in working with parents and children.

When deciding what age you’ll let your kids use social media, keep in mind that most social networks require users to be 13 or older to create an account. Remember, there’s no real way for most of these sites to enforce the age restrictions because anyone can lie about their year of birth.

  1. Talk about dangers and consequences.

Many kids don’t seem to understand the permanence of the online world. Make sure to stress to your kids what a digital footprint is and the impact inappropriate messages or images could have if a future college administrator or employer were to stumble upon them. As stated in the AAP study, what goes online stays online.

By talking to your kids about the danger signs of social media, they will more likely think twice before posting a photo or sharing their locations with others online.

  1. Keep the computer in a central location.

Rather than keeping a computer in your child’s bedroom, keep it in a centralized and open location in your house. This way, you can easily keep an eye on your child’s social media usage. Kids are less likely to engage in inappropriate behavior when they know their parents can look over their shoulder at any time.

  1. Set guidelines.

Set a time limit for how long your child spends on social media during the week. But don’t set rules that are too rigid, Loewen advised.

“Find a middle point where your child feels empowered to make good decisions without having to hide from you,” he said.

If your kids are old enough to be using the computer on their own, they are old enough to understand that there are rules they need to abide by. Breaking them should not have a lesser consequence than if they broke a rule in the offline world.

  1. Power down.

Some families have become so overly digitized that time together at home and during meals is being displaced. Direct interaction with peers is disappearing as well. Insist that family meals are device-free and set reasonable bedtimes.

“Children and adolescents don’t get enough sleep as it is, so staying up half the night online certainly doesn’t help,” says Dr. Clarke-Pearson.

  1. Use filtering software and check privacy settings.

There are software suites you can purchase to monitor your child’s Internet usage; many even enable you to view the exact keys that were typed, time spent online and all computer activity in general. Popular programs such as Net Nanny and PureSight PC let you monitor social media sites, block chats, filter content and much more. You can even monitor your child’s cell phone with a software program like My Mobile Watchdog.

You’ll also want to make sure privacy settings are set to the strictest levels. Depending on which browser you are using, you can adjust the settings directly from the options tab and adjust levels around cookies, third party sites and more. This not only protects the computer user, but also the computer from the threat of viruses.

  1. Talk to kids about questionnaires, giveaways and contests.

A pop-up ad appears and tells kids they can win a free iPad by simply clicking the link. Anyone would be tempted by this kind of offer, but kids are particularly susceptible, so it’s important to warn kids against falling for this kind of Internet trick. Many of these ruses are attempts to glean personal information. Inform kids that even if they are forwarded a fun questionnaire from a friend, it’s best to close the window and not participate.

  1. Monitor posted photos.

If your child wants to share photos with his or her friends via email or a social networking site, be sure you know exactly which pictures are being posted. Make sure the content of the photo is completely innocuous and that no identifiable locales in the background are noticeable.

  1. Be a good example.

If you are tweeting and updating your Facebook page at a stoplight and taking every opportunity to “just check something,” you’re setting a poor precedent for social media usage that your child will surely follow.

“If you’re constantly on the cell or computer, your kid will want to be, too. Limit your time so you can help your child strike a balance with her own use,” said Dr. Clarke-Pearson.

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