Kids and social media

Kids are going to use social media, whether we like it or not. And sometimes I wish we could go back to a world before teen sexting and Snapchat and Tinder, but we can’t.

So as parents, it’s our responsibility to teach our kids to navigate social media safely. We can hide our heads in the sand, or we can teach them to use it responsibly, learning to be ethical and sensible online citizens.

I know a lot of parents, me included, are wary about letting our kids – of any age – loose on the internet. But we can’t ignore this huge part of modern life, and if we don’t teach our children how to interact safely and sensibly online, they’ll behave online in ways that could hurt them and their future careers, as well as potentially hurting others.

So I think we need to teach our kids, talk to our kids, and educate our kids 🙂 It’s our job, and we need to do it right.

Is there a right age for social media?

A lot of kids are on social media younger than the various companies’ own recommendations. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Musical.ly and Pinterest all have an age requirement of 13. For Vine, Tinder, Kik and Yik Yak it’s 17. YouTube is 18, or 13 with parental consent. Twitter has no formal age requirement. I believe that asking kids to wait until they meet this age requirement is appropriate, because it teaches kids that rules matter.

Talk about why your child shouldn’t have accounts on these sites before the required age and, if you want, make a promise to open their accounts together when they meet the age requirement i.e. on their 13th birthday.

In the meantime, open accounts for younger children on other, child-friendly sites, and step them through safety online so they’re ready for larger, older social media when they meet the age requirement. School websites and games machines are a good place for kids to start with technology, and there are plenty of safe apps and games for kid-friendly devices.

I strongly recommend the site Commonsense media for reviews of apps and social media sites as well as movies and other media. It covers safety as well as age-appropriateness, and is worth a look.

Personal safety and privacy – some tips

The first thing kids of all ages need to learn is to protect their own personal safety and privacy.

  • Never post their real life name, address or date of birth online. Not ever. Not even for Facebook (even though it asks quite forcefully!) or Google. Not for any form of social media.
  • If advertising and cookies can be turned off, that’s a great idea. Explain to your child the very true fact of the internet: if there’s no cost to the service, then you are the product. Ask them to think about the ways in which social media might be making money from their membership. What do they think of this?
  • For Facebook and other similar accounts, I strongly recommend accounts use the child’s real first name (i.e. “Jacob” or “Rosa”) so their friends can find them, plus a fake family name that is generic and very common (“Smith”, “Jones”, “Peters”, “James”). Their friends will soon learn how to find them online, but a fake name helps prevent identity theft, as well as preventing potential employers from doing searches for them in the future.
  • Profile pics should always be group pictures, so that while friends can identify them, stalkers and online creeps cannot.
  • Use 1st of January as a generic birthdate on all social media that requires a birthdate (even if that is the child’s genuine birthdate).
  • Keep friends and “follow” lists on Facebook, Instagram and suchlike locked down where possible.
  • Ask children to “friend” trusted adults – aunts, uncles, friends, other parents and guardians, and other members of the family that you know and trust, and yourself on all social media they join.
  • Teach kids to keep all social media posts private and locked.
  • Teach kids not to friend anyone they don’t know in real life.
  • Write passwords down in a paper notebook and store in a home safe or locked drawer, so that in case of loss accounts can be retrieved. Keep a separate notebook for each child.
  • Ideally, open the accounts together, so that kids new to the various social media sites can learn with you. If you’re not familiar, you can learn together. If you don’t have an account on any site your child wishes to join, create an account of your own there and become familiar with what the site is and what it does, and what risks it may present.

Family safety and security

Talk about internet security online with your child. Topics never to be discussed include:

  • Family interactions such as disagreements, details about other people’s lives etc. You child needs to learn not to post about other people’s business. Don’t be a gossip – they may get hits and readership, but they’re never trusted or well-liked.
  • When the family is going on holiday or out to dinner, and when the home is vacant. Personal information like this can be used by burglars to plan theft.
  • Where the family lives, including outside photos of the home from the street (identifiers). As above.
  • Never share usernames or passwords with others, and never let others use their account. Make a habit of logging out of all accounts when done.

Being kind – and respectful – to others

  • Discuss trolling, bullying and cyber-bullying, and how being mean online is a nasty and low thing to do. Talk about who to talk to (yourself, other trusted others) should they ever feel unsafe or attacked in any way, no matter how ashamed or threatened they might be.
  • Make your child aware of what cyber-bullying is, and that in several countries, cyber-bullying is a chargeable offence (Article on cyber-bullying laws passed in New Zealand).
  • Talk about how people in other countries are still people, with feelings and thoughts as well. Explain the difference between constructive criticism and plain old nasty comments.
  • Discuss how people with very many different opinions are online. You might not agree with them, but that doesn’t mean you have to be rude to them. If you disagree, be polite and / or say nothing.

Sexting and photo sharing

  • Explain what sexting is, and how it can be against the law to share images without the consent of the originator of the image. Talk about how harmful sharing naked images can be, and how underage image sharing is child pornography, and a serious offence in almost all countries.
  • Explain the “no identifiable marks” rule. If they must share an image, never share an image with their face in it, or with anything that can be personally identified as them.
  • Talk about what to do if they receive a message or image not intended for them – talking to a parent is a great first step, and the parent (you) can then contact the school or local police station if necessary.
  • Talk about what to do if an embarrassing image or text of them gets shared. Tell them they can trust you, and that it is the person who has shared the image / text who is at fault, not them.

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Above all, keep channels of communication open. Keep talking with your kids, and be aware of what’s out there and what is popular. Even if you don’t particularly use the sites yourself, if makes sense to keep in touch with what’s happening, so you can support your kids if need be.

Finally, it’s important for kids to be aware that social media sites have their own rules about what is appropriate behaviour and what isn’t. These rules can include the age of membership, what is appropriate to post, and so on. Some sites do not allow members to delete posts – your child should be aware of how to delete posts before they post anything, in case (for when!) they make mistakes!

Happy geeking! 🙂

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