Before they’re even in middle school, the average American child has a smartphone and at least one social media account. More than any other generation before them, today’s young people are digital natives, using the internet, online gaming and joining social networks on a regular basis from a very early age. That’s why it’s crucial for parents to monitor their child’s access to social media and take steps to ensure kids are using social media wisely and safely.
While there’s no doubt social media provides many benefits to users, for children, such platforms pose perhaps as many problems as potential good sides. While kids can have fun with their friends and learn about topics that excite them, there’s also the opportunity for them to see content they’re too young for or — every parent’s nightmare — fall prey to those who would take advantage of their youth.
The wild popularity of social media platforms that are accessible to virtually anyone means that due to sheer numbers, the chances of children encountering something potentially dangerous or upsetting is elevated beyond what it would be without that constant access to people around the world. A child’s sphere of influence becomes exponentially larger the moment they log on.
That’s why it’s crucial for any parent, grandparent or caregiver to understand the risks associated with kids using social media and to use common-sense tools and practices to keep children safe while they like, share and post.
What Sites Are Kids Using?
Half of American children have social media accounts by age 12, and 1 in 10 of them have social media accounts when they’re not yet to double digits in age. While many kids use Facebook, there’s another site that’s much more popular among America’s youth, and most people don’t think of it as social media: YouTube.
Percentage of U.S. teens (13-17) using online platforms
- YouTube 85%
- Instagram 72%
- Snapchat 69%
- Facebook 51%
- Twitter 32%
- Tumblr 9%
- Reddit 7%
YouTube is by far the most popular site among teens, though the shift away from Facebook is a fairly new one. According to the Pew Research Center’s previous study on this topic, 71 percent of teens used Facebook just a few years ago, making it the most popular social site for teens at the time. As Facebook has fallen, YouTube has risen. But new sites and platforms crop up seemingly every day. Here’s a look at some of the other sites and apps kids are using in 2019:
- Facebook Messenger
While many of these sites aren’t explicitly meant for social networking, they all can be used that way, and kids often use them for texting and communicating with people as a means to avoid the apps and tools their parents have banned.
Pew’s study found that 45 percent of teens are online basically constantly, and 95 percent of them own a smartphone or have access to one.
How Are Kids at Risk?
Each social site or app presents its own unique risk, depending on the feature set included in the app or site. But generally, children can be put at risk in any number of ways on social media, including:
- Cyberbullying: Social media is a hotbed of cyberbullying, as the combination of people sharing things about themselves and the ubiquity of smartphones and apps creates an easy opportunity for bullies to strike.
- Predators: The manipulation process sexual predators engage in, “grooming,” is made much easier by social media, where predators can pose as another teenager to gain a child’s trust.
- Oversharing: Most children lack the mental filters that adults have telling them what personal details might be either inappropriate or potentially dangerous or embarrassing. Something as innocuous as a child sharing that they’re excited about an upcoming out-of-town trip could put the child and their family at risk.
- Scamming: Even adults fall victim to online scammers, so the more a child uses the internet, the more frequently they run the risk of making themselves the target of a scammer.
- Malware and viruses: Similarly to the risk of being the victim of a scammer and the tendency to overshare, children often are simply unaware of the risk posed by malware and viruses.
- Embarrassing posts: It’s almost impossible to guarantee a post or social media update is gone forever, so kids may cringe — or worse — when confronted years later by embarrassing things they posted on social media.
- Cyberstalking: In addition to the risk from sexual predators and cyberbullies, children are also susceptible to cyberstalking, in which a person becomes obsessed with following an individual online and communicating with them. Such stalking often leads to real-life violence.
- Exposure to violent or sexual material: The internet became central to modern lives because anybody can post pretty much anything they want. This free market of content has its upsides, but one of the biggest downsides is that much of that content is overtly violent or explicitly sexual.
- Radicalization & indoctrination: Even adults are at risk of being radicalized by a particular belief system online. It’s one thing to find people online whose opinions you agree with; but these individuals often take things a step further by inciting or encouraging cyberstalking and bullying, and even violence.
- Criminality: With a patchwork of laws throughout the United States, conversations that might be legal in one state between, say, a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old could be illegal in another, exposing the 17-year-old to criminal charges and the potential for jail time and even felony convictions.
How Can You Keep Kids Safe on Social Media?
Most American adults and teens use social media, so it’s clear most of us see value and benefits in continuing to use these sites and apps. But it’s necessary for parents to set rules, establish boundaries and decide what is appropriate online behavior for their children.
Here are some ways parents can keep their kids safe on social media:
- Be honest about what your kids can handle: Even though most children get phones at an early age, and many of them use social media doesn’t mean it’s right for your kids. Better to be the buzzkill parent than expose your children to something they aren’t ready to use responsibly.
- Manage your own posts: Sharing cute pictures of your kids is part of what makes social media fun for adults, but it can also reveal details you otherwise wouldn’t share with strangers. Make sure your own settings are appropriate and secure and that you’re not oversharing.
- Educate your kids: Even if you think your child is mature enough, you still need to talk honestly and directly about why it’s important for them to be careful online. This could be an uncomfortable conversation, but it’s critical they understand the dangers.
- Control passwords and settings: Few children should be given free run of any device, whether a phone, tablet or computer. You should serve as the system administrator, controlling what they are able to do on the device and ensuring they do not know the password to change settings, spend real money or download apps.
- Conduct regular checks: Depending on their age, you may not need to see their profiles and pages every single day, but it should become part of your routine to ensure that either you or another trusted adult relative or friend is monitoring their social pages with regularity.
- Set time limits: Most devices allow you to see how much time is spent on each app, and you can use other apps to monitor or limit how much time is spent overall or set limits for how late your child can use a particular app.
- Create an open dialogue: Make sure your child lets you know when they receive communications from people they don’t know, even if the child ignores or denies the request. Make sure they know that if they ever encounter something online that makes them feel bad or scared that they can come to you, even if they were breaking your rules.
It can be difficult to keep up with the changing times, particularly with regard to technology and young people, but parents must be vigilant, as the risk of serious trauma is very real.
- Tips for Parents: Talk to Your Child about Appropriate Digital Behavior and Content
- Teach Your Kids to Avoid Online Scams
- Kids & Tech Survey
- Talking to Your Kids About Social Media Safety
- Kids & Tech: The Evolution of Today’s Digital Natives. (2016). Retrieved from http://influence-central.com/kids-tech-the-evolution-of-todays-digital-natives/
- Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/05/31/teens-social-media-technology-2018/
- Hottest Social App Trends for Teens. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.lifewire.com/hottest-social-app-trends-for-teens-3485940
- More sexual predators using social media to lure children, FBI says. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.cbs17.com/news/more-sexual-predators-using-social-media-to-lure-children-fbi-says_20180327091622773/1082780184