Social media has become a rite of passage for young adults. It’s a place to meet with friends, share experiences, and express themselves in creative ways. It can also get them into deep trouble if they’re not prepared for its dangers. Sexual predators, cyber bullies, and criminals flock to social media, ready to take advantage of the unwary, so just like teaching kids to drive or manage their money, you need to do some teaching and hand-holding as your children make their debut in digital society.
First, be sure that your child is ready for young adult responsibilities. Each social media site states age limits to get an account, ranging from 13 to 18, but kids routinely ignore these limits. A good way to keep younger ones from setting up accounts is to place computers in common areas of the house, so you can keep an eye on online activity. And just because your child is 13 doesn’t mean they should have social media accounts: you need to judge when your child is ready.
Once you’ve given permission to use social media, you need to educate your child about safety. First, there’s the rule you’ve taught them all their lives: Don’t talk to strangers. Sit down with them and go through the privacy settings on their accounts to make sure their information is only visible to people they know and trust. Counsel them to never accept “friend” requests from people they don’t know, and let you know if a stranger tries to contact them or if anything inappropriate shows up in their account. Same goes for cyber-bullying. If they see it going on, whether directed at them or someone else, they should let you know.
Kids also need to understand what to post and what to click. Of course, they should never post personal information like their address or phone number. Kids also need to understand that social media accounts can follow you for a lifetime, and while the concept of a future boss seeing their posts might not register with a youngster, a guideline like “never post anything you’d be embarrassed to have your parents see” will hit home. What to click is a little harder, especially because on sites like Facebook, content can show up on their home page that actually came from their friends’ pages. And what looks like a benign meme (humorous image or video) can be a link to pornography or to malicious sites or software downloads. Tell them “When in doubt, don’t click.” And, again, they should tell you if anything inappropriate pops up or they wind up on a website that asks for information or wants them to download software.
Despite all your warnings, tweens and teens may stray, so don’t be afraid to set boundaries on their online behavior. Operating systems and browsers have parental controls, you can install security software to steer them away from unsafe websites, and if you’re really worried, you can check the browser cache to see what sites they’ve visited. Teens want their privacy, but it’s no different than asking where they’re taking the car or whose house they’re staying at overnight. The most important thing is to give them just enough freedom to learn and just enough boundaries to be safe.