Pre-teens and teens are no strangers to social media and all its features. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 90% of teens ages 13-17 have used social media, and 75% report having at least one active social media profile. Having access to the internet and social media also presents the opportunity to encounter danger online. Eliza McCoy, Executive Director of Outreach, Training and Prevention at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, explains how parents can help their children safely navigate the internet and social media accounts.
Set Healthy Online Boundaries
According to the Pew Research Center, in a spring 2018 survey, roughly seven-in-ten U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 (72%) said they used Instagram. According to cnbc.com, 63% of Americans between ages 12 and 17 used TikTok on a weekly basis in 2021. To register for apps such as Instagram and TikTok, users must be at least 13 years old.
“The age of 13 came about because of early privacy laws about what companies can track of children’s private information,” McCoy says. “The age of 13 is a consistent age for many of the social media apps. I would argue that we need to really be focusing more on developmentally what’s appropriate for kids, which doesn’t always correspond to a set age. It’s why you’ll see some parents deciding to allow their children to have access earlier than 13.”
McCoy recommends that parents not regard 13 as the perfect age for all children to register for social media; parents should instead focus on what is developmentally appropriate for each child. McCoy compares this to getting a driver’s license – just because your child is 16 years old doesn’t mean you automatically hand them the car keys.
“There must be ongoing conversations between the parent and child,” McCoy says. “Parents should allow their children online access and discuss the scenarios that their child encounters online. It must be an active and ongoing conversation in which the parent puts very realistic appropriate limits along the way.”
McCoy has a rule in her home that her kids are not allowed to lie about their age in order to register for a social media account.
She says several companies such as TikTok and Google now have family-paired accounts designed for users aged 11 to 13, where the child can have the account with limitations, and it’s paired with an adult account. This allows the child access to social media and the parent to have oversight of the account. Parents and children can then have ongoing conversations about what content their child is posting and what content their child is seeing.
Review safety features within apps
Because children of all ages are engaging with social media platforms, it is important that children and parents spend time reviewing the safety features within apps and what privacy settings are offered.
“Most of the major apps do have safety centers within their application or on their website that have user guides about what’s available, and what options they may have, and suggestions particularly for parents,” McCoy says. “Before signing up your child, I would look at those in the particular app to help guide the decision about whether or not you’re going to allow them to have that app.”
Children should avoid contact with unknown users. Parents should be sure to check privacy settings, be aware of any geolocation elements that may be involved within the app, and see who is and isn’t allowed to message your child.
“All of these apps do feature updates constantly,” McCoy says. “It can be overwhelming, even as an adult, to stay aware of what in-app updates are happening. You have to be an active and proactive user.”
It is important for parents to have conversations with their children and be aware of safety features within apps, such as the “block” button or the “report” button. Typically, the “block” feature means the other user cannot contact or interact with your child in any capacity. The “report” feature typically allows users to report inappropriate behavior or interactions to the app.
Be aware of potential predators
Parents may teach their children to be fearful of strangers. However, children will then not be able to identify someone they’ve formed a close relationship with as someone who could be harming them, according to McCoy.
Situations are often not as black and white as when a predator messages a child and asks for inappropriate photos. More likely, a child can play a video game and develop a friendship with an online player, and then that person pushes boundaries.
“Kids don’t often identify what is the most important behavior to identify, which is someone who has established rapport with you, and then takes advantage,” she says. “Just changing safety settings isn’t going to keep your kid from being at risk. Yes, the safety settings keep away that stranger who can private-message your child out of nowhere, but it’s not going to keep away individuals that your kid ‘friends’ and then starts a friendship with. That’s why we have to talk to kids about behaviors.”
Focus on behaviors of online profiles, not characteristics
There are some profiles that may seem illegitimate online, such as profiles with common names such as “Adam Smith,” or long usernames with many numbers, or profiles that don’t have any photos or a profile picture. McCoy says children should focus on behaviors, not characteristics.
“Be careful when there is a scenario where someone is trying to establish rapport with you,” McCoy says. “You may find that everything you say, they agree with. Or they’re asking deeper and deeper questions about your interests, your family, your networks, etc. People who are really intent on victimizing children online know that they’re going to have a kid’s picture or profile picture. They’re going to put their school as a school in the same state that you’re in. They’re getting around that stuff.”
Just because a user may be from the same state or the same school does not mean they are who they say they are. Be mindful of behaviors coming from these specific users.
Have conversations and communicate with your child about these behaviors. Even if kids are using a variety of online platforms, it’s still good for parents to know what their children are using and whom they are interacting with on a daily basis.
“We know that the average age of victimization for online sexual exploitation is usually between 8 and 14,” McCoy says. “So we want to be talking to children earlier than that about safe behaviors and dangerous behaviors.”
“Think about the online space in terms of healthy boundaries that you want to set for your kids, and values you want to instill in them,” she adds. “It’s not easy, but I think changing that mindset of parents to think about the online world as just another environment where they’re doing the same type of parenting that’s best in real life. I would say the process of increasing privacy and boundaries as they get older and focusing on ‘What are the values they want their child to uphold in that space?’ just like they would in the real world, is so important.”
Dangers of Social Media Trends
It is important to be aware of apps and features that can help a user depict a false reality of their life, leading other users to compare themselves to what they see on the screen. Additionally, social media is a place of creativity and innovation – often leading to new challenges for users to try and perfect. While some challenges are harmless and playful, others can have detrimental effects. Here are a few trending social media challenges:
According to techtimes.com, Facetune and Facetune 2 have been downloaded over 30 million times in 2021. For the original Facetune app, this is the seventh consecutive year it has appeared in Apple’s yearly top five paid apps. Facetune is a photo-editing app that allows users to refine their jawline, erase blemishes, color their hair and more. While some people use Facetune to erase a blemish or two, many content creators have pushed photo-editing to the extreme, transforming their generic image into an illusion of who they really are. Before allowing your child to sign up for social media, assure them that 71% of people edit their selfies before posting them (according to themodems.com).
Miami-based rapper Saucy Santana has achieved national stardom after his hit song “Material Girl” blew up on TikTok the last few months. In late 2020, Santana released his song “Walk” and a challenge ensued. In this challenge, TikTok users strut to the song, usually exiting a pool and wearing a swimsuit. While this challenge may be harmless, many users often compare themselves to the person strutting in the video, and may feel insecure after viewing.
TikTok “Baggy Clothes”
In a new TikTok trend, users caption their post saying people mistake them for being overweight because they wear baggy clothes. Then the users lift up their baggy sweatshirt to reveal a slimmer physique. This trend is extremely dangerous for young children, as the trend claims that baggy clothes restrict a person’s physique and are “less desirable” than form-fitting clothes. The trend puts out a negative notion that one must be slimmer under their baggy clothes and reveal a “more desirable” physique once their baggy sweatshirt is lifted. While your child engages with TikTok content, be sure to monitor the trends they are watching and intaking.