#1: When should I let my kids use social media?
There is no specific age as to when it’s okay to let your kids use social media. It all depends on the maturity level of the child. The fact is that many kids are technically savvy enough to use the sites, but can lack the wisdom to use it wisely and the maturity to handle it when something goes wrong online. That only comes with time and experience.
There is a minimum legal age (13) that most social media sites use. That age was chosen because of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, otherwise known as COPPA. It was enacted in 1998 to help prevent any website that collects data on users and went into effect in 2000.
It is probably the most broken law in the U.S. outside of the speed limit laws. When I speak at schools or other groups for children, I always ask how many of the kids are using sites like Facebook, Instagram, etc. Then I ask them to put their hands down if they are at least 13 years of age. You’d be amazed at how many hands are still in the air!
#2: Why don’t social media sites do a better job protecting kids?
The conclusion that I come to is related to liability. That may sound strange, considering that they do very little, if anything at all to protect people from cyberbullying. Bear with me, though. If you have ever gone to the beach when there is no lifeguard on duty, there is always a sign up indicating that there is no lifeguard on duty and that people are swimming at their own risk.
Take that same analogy and apply it to social media. With the hundreds of millions of people using social media, think about how many lifeguards the social media companies would need to hire to police the situation. Even so, they could not prevent most of it, just react when it happened. In Australia, for example, a new law was enacted that fines companies that don’t act on cyberbullying activities. It may help stop the spread of it and maybe even help stop the same person from doing it over again (at least with the same account), but there is no silver bullet that will prevent cyberbullying except to eliminate social media and the internet altogether. Who sees that happening?
#3: Which sites should I not let my kids use?
I firmly believe that adults should be allowed to use any site that they wish, even if it’s a site (like Tinder or Ashley Madison) that I would never use myself. Still, for kids, it’s a completely different picture.
I recommend against any site where the user can post in anonymity. That includes Ask.FM, Awkward, Let, Whisper and Yik Yak. Why people think that it’s okay to post something malicious on such a site is beyond me. Anything I want to say, I have the confidence of my convictions and would be willing to say it directly to their face. That also means that I wouldn’t post it on a site like Facebook. I’d be sure to say it to them directly, in private, if possible.
I also recommend avoiding any app that makes it far too easy for a user to make an error in judgment. The most obvious app that falls into this category is SnapChat. When people first started using the app, they were told that the images would disappear from both parties’ cell phones in seconds and would be deleted from the company’s servers. Both of those scenarios turned out to be untrue.
Reportedly, the company no longer is keeping the images on their servers and agreed to oversight for the next 20 years by the FTC for violating its users’ privacy. Even with the company no longer keeping the images, it is all too easy to preserve the images that are sent via SnapChat. Pretty much every cell phone can take a screen shot and there are now several third party apps that are designed to save the images.
The last type of app that parents should be on the lookout for will be difficult to spot. There are many apps, like the “calculator” app discussed in this article that are specifically designed to hide pictures on a cell phone from parental eyes. Kids can move the images into a hidden folder that does not show up in a usual gallery or folder. Why do you think that kids would want to hid pictures on their phone? Take a few moments to go through each and every app of your child’s phones to see if they do what you expected of them.
#4: How do I find out what’s happening to my child online?
I have three recommendations on this subject. The decision to like/friend/follow a child should be made carefully. Some kids might not appreciate the teasing that might come from their peers when they see that they are friends with their parents. Still, as a general rule, I recommend it.
Even so, all kids should be required to provide their parents with all login information for any and all sites that they are using. There is way too much that goes on that is not visible to friends. A parent would need to sign on to see this kind of activity. It includes:
Private/direct messages sent to and from the child
What goes on in any closed, secret or private groups that the child has joined
Verification of their privacy settings, which should always be set to the most restrictive, while still allowing friends to see what they post
On some sites, such as Facebook, you can see their activity log.
Regarding the privacy settings, they should be set so that if anyone else tags them in a post or picture that the tag only applies after your child approves it. I still remember a case where a woman posted what she thought was a private posting between her and her husband. She was wearing a very revealing outfit and tagged him on the posting so that he’d obviously notice it. However, by doing it that way, all of his Facebook friends got to see the picture too because it automatically got posted to his wall.
I don’t recommend that parents sign on often, especially if there is no suspicion of inappropriate activity, but doing so sporadically is a good way to help prevent problems from becoming overwhelming.
If you do ever witness bad behavior through your child’s social media sites, do not respond to it online. Take the discussion offline and handle it where the child will not be embarrassed. This will only convince your child that you are not to be trusted and could lead them to create a secondary account that you know nothing about, where all of their “real” activity takes place.
Another option to learn about your children is to set up automatic email alerts. These services are free of charge and will send emails to you when they detect online content that meets your criteria. There are a variety of services available, but the most popular one is probably Google Alerts. Companies often use it to detect when someone is referencing their company or products, but it can also be used to look for a specific person, information about a certain school, etc.
#5: What should I do if my child is involved in inappropriate activity online?
Start by not overreacting. That’s true if your child is the aggressor or the target. Either way, you do not want to react to what you see online. Doing so will most likely only serve in embarrassing your child. The result could include making the situation worse between them and whoever else is involved (plus attracting other people into the incident) and convince them that they cannot trust you.
One such incidence does not make your child a hard core cyberbully. If your child does, however, do something that they should not have done online, discuss it with them in a calm, but firm tone. This is not something to be minimized. People of all ages have been known to kill themselves over being cyberbullied. Your child needs to know the potential harm that they could do to someone. They also need to have consequences from their parents to help prevent it from happening again.
On the other hand, there are several things that you can do to help your child if they are the target.
Start by reassuring the child that you are there for them. One of the biggest differences between cyberbullying and traditional bullying is that they may feel that no place is safe. That’s because they can take their cell phone or tablet with them anywhere. Even the confines of the family home are no longer a barrier to cyberbullying.
Next, save the evidence. You and your child may feel the immediate desire to delete the message. Fight the urge, as it may be the exact evidence that you need to show to a teacher, parent or even to law enforcement to help make your case. If necessary, take screen shots, print out the message or anything else you need to do to preserve the evidence. It may be the only advantage to cyberbullying – that it creates its own case against the aggressor.
When making a case to another parent, don’t be surprised if they don’t believe you or are openly hostile to your accusations. After all, would you believe another parent if they accused your child?
Another thing that should be done immediately is to review the privacy settings on your child’s social media accounts. They do have the ability/right to change them without telling their users, so doing this on a regular basis is a good thing. Make sure that they are set to the most restrictive setting that still lets friends/followers see what gets posted.
Related to that, make sure that your child’s friends know what is acceptable to share from your child’s account and that they do not tag them in photos/postings without first asking your child if it’s okay to do so. If the privacy settings on the site in question allow it, make sure that they can’t tag your child without their approval first.
The best defense is a good offense. By that, I mean that parents can prevent a lot of the problems associated with cyberbullying by preemptively discussing the subject with their kids. Let them know that it is possible that they may be targeted at some time. We have already taught our ten year old daughter that bullies (of any kind) frequently do it not because of the victim, but how they feel about themselves.
In what was one of the best responses to bullying, actor Wil Wheaton detailed his own experience with being bullied as a child and helped a little girl who was being called a nerd. Kids need to understand that most bullies can only feel good about themselves when they make everyone else feel less than they do about themselves.
I can’t promise you that your children will not be targeted by a cyberbully, but I hope that I’ve provided you with some good ideas on what to do if it does happen to you. Please discuss these ideas with your kids.