Coming of age in a Snapchat world: How do I keep my child safe?

How to keep your kids safe on social media

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Reddit. As a parent, your instinct is always to protect your child. But how 
do you protect them in the ever-evolving digital landscape? Social media has become a part of our everyday lives and is changing the way we interact with the world around us. According to a study by Common Sense Media, teenagers use an average of nine hours of entertainment media a day and tweens (ages 8-12) use an average of six hours per day. This does not include using media for school or homework.

What is the long-term impact of this amount of media exposure on the developing brain? We don’t yet know. What we do know is that it is impossible to prevent your child from using social media. So, how can you help them use it safely?

As your child approaches adolescence, you should expect that they:

  • Will want to establish a sense of autonomy (sense of self) and individual identity. This includes seeking independence from you as parents and wanting approval from their friends.
  • Will want privacy and personal space, both online and offline.
  • Will not think like an adult. The tween and teen- age brains are not fully developed, particularly the prefrontal cortex. This area controls executive functioning. These functions include the ability to not act impulsively, think through consequences of behaviors and regulate emotions. Executive functioning skills do not fully develop until your child enters their mid-20s.

Social media pitfalls

Digital etiquette. There are many unspoken but frequently observed rules related to cellphone and social media use. The timing, frequency and content of texts, tweets and posts can all impact the way the person on the other end perceives that information.

Privacy. Content posted on social media can be easily shared, regardless of privacy settings through reposts, retweets and screenshots. Poor decisions and social mishaps are common among adolescents as they develop their identity and learn to navigate relationships. But the lack of privacy online creates greater opportunities for mistakes, which many people might see.

Digital footprint. Information, pictures and opinions shared on social media form a lasting “digital footprint” that can affect your child’s reputation with friends, future education (colleges) and potential employers.

Safety. Social media poses safety concerns for children and adolescents, including the possibility of cyberbullying, identity theft, stalking, exposure to sexual predators, access to inappropriate content and sexting.

Five parenting do’s:

  1. Get to know your child’s social media use and learn how to use common social media platforms. Ask your child to teach you about the apps they use. This provides your child with the opportunity to share their knowledge and gives you the chance to raise talking points about risks.
  2. Talk with your child about the permanence and public nature of posts. Review what they should do if they feel threatened or victimized online. Cyberbullying victimization rates range from 20 to 40 percent. But these statistics are thought to be underestimates because victims may not want to share that they have been bullied.
  3. Respect your child’s right to privacy. This includes monitoring what you share about your children on your own social media accounts. Although you may think the picture of your child in an embarrassing situation is endearing, they may feel uncomfortable or ashamed.
  4. Set boundaries. Set clear rules around media use as a family. For example, choose the times of day your child can use it and decide how often they can text a friend or post online. Set rules around when devices should be turned o before bed. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a tool for families create a Family Media Plan that establishes rules in these areas.
  5. Encourage digital detox. Plan media-free times as a family. You can read books, take classes or explore a new park. These experiences encourage creativity and growth and will also help with stress. Early research suggests that the more social networks a young adult uses, the more likely they are to report symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Three parenting don’ts:

  1. Don’t take away all of your child’s social media access. Today, social media is an important part of a tween or teen’s life. In-person relationships with friends also take place on social media platforms. Therefore, not allowing your child to use social media is both unrealistic and overly punishing.
  2. Don’t install parental monitoring applications. This has not been shown to be effective. It can also create an environment of distrust between you and your child.
  3. Don’t assume that your child would not engage in risky behavior. Small lapses in judgment, like sending a provocative photo, joining in cyberbullying or posting a rude comment, can have serious consequences. This is why it is important to have open communication about safe social media practices with your child.

Learn about the Developmental Medicine Center at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Originally printed in the Division of Developmental Medicine‘s quarterly newsletter series, “ADHD: Tips for Parents.”

About the authors: Marie Reilly, MD, is a developmental behavioral pediatrician in the Developmental Medicine Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. Amy Young, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist and researcher in the Division of Developmental Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an instructor in Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She specializes in the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with neurodevelopmental and behavioral disorders.