KTXS in Abilene reported this weekend that “a convicted sex offender, in custody in Mansfield, is accused of taking two 13-year-old girls and raping them, according to police and jail records. The mother of one of the teens told KTXS that her daughter had met the accused, Robert Harris, 49, on Skout, a social media website, about two to three months ago. In addition, the mother said Harris gave them tips on how to run away from home — and that Harris picked them up in Abilene and drove them to Fort Worth.” (www.ktxs.com/news/)
Many of us grew up in the age of Springsteen and Madonna; way before Nirvana. Parenting was much simpler. As long as we worked hard in school and said, “No” to drugs, our parents knew everything would turn out well. Things are different now. Raising kids in the Age of Social Media comes with a totally new set of challenges. Kids today are hyper-connected, reaching out to peers in a variety of ways including texting, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, KiK, ooVoo, and more. While growing up online has its benefits, it also poses new risks.
So how do we keep our kids safe on social media?
- Educate yourself.
It’s important to know what it is that we don’t know. Sites like SafeSmartSocial.com, FOSI.org, and CommonSenseMedia.org are great places to start. Safe, Smart, & Social is particularly helpful for parents of teens and pre-teens. According to a study by the Family Online Safety Institute, parents with younger children are more likely to think that they know more about technology and online activities than their child does (80%), whereas just 36% of parents with a child age 14 to 17 think they know more than their child.
- Talk to your kids.
Many kids don’t realize the consequences that come with using social media. They tend to underestimate how easily accessible their information is, and can forget that others are watching their online activity. Keep discussions open. It’s important to make clear that your child can come to you with questions or ask for help. At the same time, be sensitive of your child’s need for privacy. Clearly communicate your family values and expectations concerning on-line behavior. Talk about real-life situations where social media can cause harm, include stories from the news when appropriate.
- Establish age limits.
Decide at what ages you want your child to access social media, get an email account, or use on-line chat. If you don’t currently allow your children to use social media, it’s a good idea to let them know at what age they can start. When kids feel like it’s never going to happen, they are more likely to set up their own, secret profile. When deciding at what age you’ll let your kids use social media, keep in mind that most social networks require users to be 13 or older to create an account.
Smart phones, computers, and gaming devices come with parental controls that will allow you to put age restrictions on certain types of apps and media. FOSI.org reports that among those who say their child personally has his or her own cell phone (51% of parents), parents on average say that their child got the phone at age 11.
- Set guidelines or rules.
Setting guidelines and talking about your expectations is a good way to encourage positive social media habits for your child. For example, establish times for your child to use the computer and keep it in a central location. Set limits on how much time they spend with social media. Have them keep their phone in your room when they should be sleeping. If you eat dinner at the table together, consider setting all cell phones in a basket while you eat. Avoid setting rules that are too rigid. Find a middle ground where you and your child are comfortable. You want to encourage positive behavior and open communication.
- Start today.
It’s never too early or too late to start. An ounce of prevention is well worth the time and effort. It’s amazing how desensitized most kids are to cyberbullying, sharing inappropriate images, or divulging personal information. Parents should begin teaching their kids about on-line safety as early as kindergarten. CommonSenseMedia.org is a great resource to find information for younger children. If you’re the parent of teens or pre-teens, check out SafeSmartSocial.com for advice about social media.