Like a lot of parents, I’ve been struck by how active—though not savvy—my kids and their friends are with social media.

It’s a little like we’ve given our kids keys to a new car and said, “Have fun! Be safe!” without actually teaching them to drive.

Will they crash? My kids’ friends have Instagram accounts that let them post pictures of themselves and their friends—which they do, innocently—all over the Internet. These photos are often geotagged, making it easier for creepy pedophiles to locate them in the real world.

The FBI estimates that there are a half million pedophiles online everyday—predators who are sophisticated about “grooming” children and teens: forming online relationships before they start soliciting personal or sexual information, or before they try to initiate a meeting. They often pose as kids the same age.

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There are risks to kids’ social media use even beyond the threat of pedophiles. To name just a few: cyberbullying, either as a victim or perpetrator; socially inappropriate posts that could later be humiliating to themselves or their friends; exposure to media that frightens or otherwise harms them; and the time they lose online—when they would gain more by reading, playing outside, or deepening their relationships in real-life.

All children need online social skills training. We may not be able to teach our children the ins-and-outs of Instagram, but we do need to guide them through the basics of interacting online—even if that means we need to learn the basics ourselves, first.

Which is exactly what I’m trying to do: Teach myself enough to stay just ahead, or at least stay aware, of what my children are doing. While we parents might not know exactly how every new social media app works, we do have better judgement than our children about the appropriate use of these awesome technologies.

This post and the one that will follow next week offer parents guidance in keeping their kids happy and safe online. To get started, here are five principles to keep in mind.

1. We, the parents, are the gatekeepers, guidance counselors, and teachers. The kids’ school is not in charge of teaching them to navigate social media and online life.

Kids’ time online and their devices are a privilege that we can take away if necessary. As the people in charge, we need to approve and monitor every single app they download, every social media account they open, the websites they like to frequent (especially when they are younger), and every game they play (even if they buy it “with their own money”). This doesn’t mean we need to be an annoying POS*. But we do need to know what they have on their devices, and they need to know what they’ve been given permission to watch and play.

2. Take every game or app that your kids are using for a test drive. I’ve deleted a lot of asinine apps that seemed fine to download but upon playing turned out to be on the “no way” list. This can actually be pretty fun.

My approach with my kids is positive: “What is your favorite app these days?” They often come to me excited to show me something new that their friends are playing (last week it was “Draw Free”) so that they can get permission to download it.

3. Keep your kids’ devices on your iTunes account, if you can, so that you can easily control and monitor their downloads.

4. Establish regular periods of time for your whole family to be unplugged: The feedback loops inherent in email, texting, and games can create a compulsion to constantly check devices, which can cause anxiety (and, some pediatricians believe, depression as well). Don’t let constant checking become a habit!

Also to this end: Have 100 percent device-free areas in your home, like the dining room, and device-free times of day—like bedtime and beyond. Take devices out of bedrooms at night to remove them from temptation.

5. Teach them to always know their online community. They aren’t celebrities and performers with millions of anonymous followers; they are kids. They should know every single one of the people that they are “friends” with or that is “following” them, without exception. If they are seeking the status-symbol-like quality of having hundreds of online “friends,” help them increase their numbers safely, perhaps by having all your friends connect to them.

Next week, I’m going to do a deeper dive into this subject and create a checklist of things we all need to talk about with our kids around their online and social media usage.

It isn’t easy to know how to teach kids what they need to know to be “good drivers” and good citizens in the online world—how to know what is public and what should remain private, what is commercial and what is authentic, what will ultimately contribute to both their happiness and to the greater good.

But, difficult though it may be, it is important for us to not just toss our kids the keys and wish them luck with those new-fangled apps! Stay tuned.

*That’s teen speak for “parent over shoulder”


© 2012 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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