The advent of social media and its presence in the lives of kids and teens has come at an interesting time. In most families, both parents work full-time, and separation and divorce are all too common. Family dinners are becoming a rarity. For many kids, after school hours are busier than ever, scheduled with lessons and sports. This reality leaves kids and parents vulnerable to disconnection and creates an ideal environment for kids to go looking for connection elsewhere. The most accessible place for them to find this is through social media, which is always right at their fingertips as their phones are never far away.
Most parents give their child a cell phone because they want the security of knowing that the child could call whenever they need help and the parent can similarly reach the child anytime. This benefit comes with risks and in order to protect their kids, parents need to be informed and have regular conversations with their children about what those risks are and how to protect themselves online.
Prior to giving kids a cell phone, parents should discuss ground rules with them, followed by regular supervision. Tell your kids know that you are going to routinely screen messages. Let them know it is okay for them to ignore messages that make them uncomfortable and to report and block anyone disrespectful or inappropriate. Educate your kids about security and privacy features, and ensure they use them. Restrict your child’s screen time to an age-appropriate amount and set parameters around the times they can have access. Phones should be off-limits during certain activities and times like in school, at mealtimes and at bedtime. Parents can model healthy behaviour by putting their phones away during family time too.
Sexting is sending a message, picture or video that contains sexual content. When it involves a minor, it’s considered distribution of child pornography. It’s happening with alarming frequency, especially among the youngest cell phone users. Parents should educate their kids about the risks of sexting, such as unintended sharing by the recipient, possible legal action and the fact that once an image is out there, you cannot get it back. Kids should never ask someone else for ‘nudes’ and should tell a parent right away if they’re asked for one.
Cyberbullying happens on social media platforms and via instant or direct messaging. Like regular bullying, it involves degrading or threatening statements. The bullied child is emotionally impacted and their sense of well-being and safety may be negatively affected. Parents must monitor for signs of bullying. Kids that are being bullied may socially isolate, retreat from family time, have mood swings, start skipping school or become protective of their cell phones.
If your child is accused of being a bully, don’t ignore the situation. Get involved immediately. Learn all the facts. Talk to your child and focus on accountability.
Ensure children understand what’s appropriate to share with in-person friends and with online friends. Discuss the risks of using GPS technology to let others know, in real time, the user’s exact location. This is dangerous because it provides detailed location information to “friends” that the child may have never met.
Teens are influenced by the risky behaviours demonstrated on public online video sites like YouTube. Dangerous games that depict hazing rituals and unsafe “challenges” are fuel for activities that can harm your child or someone else. Teach your kids to follow their own judgment and resist peer pressure when it comes to participating in so-called challenges and other such activities. This includes monitoring what they watch online and how they interpret the various social issues they see. Talking about the effects of self-harm, racism, pornography and violence helps kids to view it through a more realistic lens.
Parenting children and teens who use social media is complicated because our kids can be sitting safely in our homes yet be totally exposed to the world. It can be difficult in today’s busy family life to stay connected to our kids, but it’s imperative that parents focus energy every day on having one-on-one connections and monitoring their kids’ use of social media to keep everyone safe.