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Social media: What parents should know

Sharing information and images via social media is a part of daily life for many children and teens. Social media allows kids to communicate with one another, and to document and share what they are doing in real time. The networking power of social media means that it is not uncommon for kids to be connected with people they have never met in person.

Whether it’s via text message or a smartphone app like Instagram or Snapchat, today’s children and youth are able to share personal information far beyond what their parents could do when they were young. It’s important for parents to learn about the different technologies children are using to help keep them safe online.

Social media is always changing, with new apps appearing all the time. Because this document is only an introduction, we have included links to other websites you might find helpful.

What is social media?

Social media refers to websites and apps that allow people to interact with others, or create and share content. Popular social media platforms for youth include Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.

There are many different ways that people use social media:

  • Online profiles: Most social media sites require users to set up a profile, which usually includes a name, e-mail address, birthdate, interests and a photo.
  • Friends: Depending on the tool, users “follow” or “request” to be friends with people they know, such as classmates or family members. They may also use it to find new friends.
  • Messaging/Chats: Using instant messaging over the Internet or between smartphones to send messages (e.g. Facebook Messenger, iMessage, WhatsApp, Hangouts).
  • Walls and boards: Social media sites allow people to post or send messages in many different ways. On Facebook, for example, information is posted to a “wall”. Depending on a user’s privacy settings, some messages are visible to the public, while others can only be seen by friends or followers.
  • Photo and video sharing: Many social networking sites or apps allow users to upload photos and videos, or to share live videos. These can also be public or private depending on privacy settings.
  • Vlogs: Short for “video blogs”, vlogs are posted regularly to a video sharing platform (like YouTube) by individuals called “vloggers”. Vloggers can develop very big followings online.
  • Joining groups: Many apps allow users to create groups. People “join”, “like” or “follow” groups to access information and have conversations with other members.
  • Playing games: Children and teens visit online sites to play games, alone or with their friends. Some apps include free online gambling, and many feature product promotion or advertising.
  • Online dating: Many apps or websites help strangers find romantic or sexual connections online.

How can I keep my children safe using social media?

  • Learn about the programs and apps your child is using. Some social media platforms have age restrictions to join, but it’s easy for children to get around these.
  • Show interest in your child’s online life and ask questions.
  • When possible, keep tablets and computers in common areas where you can watch while your child uses them.
  • Get online family protection. Programs that provide parental controls can block websites, enforce time limits, monitor the websites your child visits, and their online conversations.
  • Follow your child’s online accounts, and tell them that you are monitoring their online activity to help keep them safe. Some children or teens may create a fake second account for their parents to follow.
  • Ask them about the people they “meet” online. Showing genuine interest will help them feel comfortable talking about it. Explain that it’s easy for someone on the Internet to pretend to be someone they’re not.
  • Talk about the importance of keeping online friendships in the online world. Make it clear that if your child wants to meet an online friend in person, it must be in a public place and with a trusted adult.
  • Discuss what’s okay and safe to post online, and what isn’t. Online posts stay online forever. As a general rule, your child shouldn’t post anything they wouldn’t want a parent or teacher to see or read.
  • People can’t always control what others post about them. Explain that information and photos found online can turn up again years later.
  • Explain that autocorrect can sometimes lead to miscommunication and hurt feelings.
  • Some teens may try to find dates or sexual partners on dating sites. Talk to them about finding healthy and safe relationships.

What about limits?

  • Model good behaviour on your own social media accounts.
  • Set screen time limits and set rules on when screens are appropriate to use.
  • Teach your child the value of “unplugging” from devices for technology-free time. Social media can be exciting, but it should be considered entertainment. Remind your child that no message is so important that it can’t wait until the morning.
  • Keep in mind that some children have “streaks” with online friends, which means they message daily to maintain a streak. Losing smartphone or social media privileges can trigger stress and anxiety if they can’t maintain their “streaks”.

What should I know about online privacy?

Most social media websites have privacy policies and settings, but they are all different. Some sites are completely public, meaning that anyone can read or look at anything, anytime. Other sites let you control who has access to your information.

The following suggestions will help you and your children protect their online privacy:

  • Read a website’s privacy policy before sharing any personal information.
  • Check your child’s privacy policy settings to make sure he isn’t sharing more information than you want (for example, his birthdate or location).
  • If they use a GPS-enabled smartphone or tablet, they could be posting status updates, photos and videos with “geotags”. Geotags share the exact location of where your photo was taken. Make sure these are turned off on devices.
  • Encourage your child to use an online nickname, instead of a real name, whenever possible.
  • Make sure your child keeps every account password protected, and have them change passwords often.
  • Remind your child not to share passwords, even with friends.
  • Your child should not accept friend requests from (or actively connect with) people they don’t know in real life.
  • Explain that Snapchat posts are NOT temporary, as they were intended to be. People can take screenshots of a photo before it disappears.
  • Encourage them to protect and respect their friends’ privacy too. They should ask permission before posting something about a friend, such as a photo or a video. They should also be aware of what your friends are posting about them.

What is cyber-bullying?

Cyberbullying is when people are bullied online. While most online social interactions are positive, some people use the technology to intimidate and harass others. Cyberbullying can happen in many ways: by sending mean messages over e-mail or by posting them publicly in an app like Facebook, by sharing photos and videos without permission, or by excluding someone from a group chat.

Talk to your children about cyberbullying. If it isn’t too serious, suggest that they ignore it at first. If it doesn’t stop, is violent or sexually explicit, or if your child gets scared, encourage them to talk to you or another trusted adult.

What is sexting?

Sexting is sending sexually explicit messages, photos or videos between smartphones or social media apps. It can also happen over e-mail.

  • Ask your teen what she knows about sexting.
  • Talk about the dangers of sexting. Remind him that words and photos posted online can easily be shared with others.
  • Remind them that nothing is ever really deleted online. Friends, enemies, parents, teachers, coaches, strangers, and potential employers can find past posts.
  • Although most dating sites (like Tinder, Grindr, Bumble) are for people over 18 years old, many teens know about them. Online dating services allow users to create a profile and upload personal information and photos. Users can be encouraged by others to share inappropriate photos.

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