You never really know what your kids are going to say—especially on Facebook or Twitter.
Whether it’s a harmless status update from a party or an awkward political statement, social media activity can get attention from friends, college admission counselors and even law enforcement. While children younger than 13 are technically banned from social media due to the Children’s Online Privacy Act, it remains something of a Wild West for young teens.
Many are struggling to keep up with their kids’ online activities. Meanwhile most teens, who are better versed in social media than their parents, have a distinct upper hand.
If you’re not talking with your teens about safety in social media, it’s time to get proactive. Here are some tips to get started.
1. Dip your toes into social media. If you don’t know how platforms like Facebook and Twitter work, it’s going to be hard to have an effective conversation about them. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the best way to monitor your teenager’s social media activity is to have your own accounts.
2. Start the conversation, and keep it going. In a recent Huffington Post article, Signe Whitson, a therapist for adolescents, recommended setting smartphone usage rules from the start, including time spent on the device, and setting a time that phones should be docked in a common area (not a bedroom) to charge for the evening. Parents should also make it clear that online privacy does not extend to family members, and that you’ll be reading posts, reviewing photos and scrolling through friends lists.
3. Talk about consequences. Teens need to understand that once something is posted, it’s no longer private. Even if something is deleted, old versions may still be accessible on other friends’ computers, and therefore easy to repost, according to Onguardonline.gov.
While long-term thinking isn’t the average teen’s favorite task, it’s important to discuss the consequences now. According to a recent survey by Kaplan Test Prep, 31 percent of college admissions counselors have checked social networking sites to learn more about a student. And a 2013 study from CareerBuilder.com reported that more than two in five hiring managers found information on social media sites that prevented them from hiring someone.
4. Develop a family contract. According to Parenting.com, the best way for families to agree on ground rules is to come up with a contract for everyone to sign. Sample contracts are available online, including one from the Family Online Safety Institute, and a variety of contracts based on the age of the child or teen, at CommonSenseMedia.org.
For parents, these contracts include responsibilities like regular check-ins and not overreacting when their teens approach them with a problem that’s surfaced on social media. For teens, responsibilities may include divulging all passwords and screen names, and letting parents know if anyone they haven’t met in person approaches them online.
Once you’ve got an open dialogue going with your teens, keep an eye on their activities to make sure they’re following the rules. Here are a few tips to maintain control:
1. Exercise good netiquette. Once you’ve connected with your teen online, try not to blow it. According to Mashable.com, parents should avoid the following behaviors:
2. If you find a secret account, don’t let it slide. Dr. Don Shifrin, a pediatrician and professor, recently told the Daily Herald that setting up a secret account is a breach of trust, and a sign of emotional struggle.
“You have to have a serious discussion, much the way you would if you found a substance in their drawer while putting their socks away,” he said.
3. If all else fails, consider more invasive monitoring. If you’re concerned that your child may be engaging in dangerous activity, you may want to invest in software that can track your teen online, or block specific behaviors, like cyberbullying or overtures from online predators. A recent LA Daily News article listed some of the most popular options.
Don’t despair. With some simple ground rules and open communication at home, your child’s most frustrating post may soon be unwanted commentary about your fashion sense.