Phone Apps and Social Media: Keeping Your Kids Safe

Let’s play a quick word-association game. What is the first thing that comes to mind when I say “social media”? If you’re of a certain age, you’ll likely come back with “Facebook” and “Twitter” — and maybe one or two others at most.

While these two services are indeed the most high-profile across all age groups, they’re really just the tip of the iceberg. If you asked the same question of teens and pre-teens, they would name a bewildering array of social media and phone apps you’ve probably never heard of.

And if those teens and/or pre-teens are a part of your family, asking becomes vitally important. That was one of the major takeaways of the November installment of the Now You Know series, the monthly talks presented by Meridian HealthCare and the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County.

The presenter was Angie Cameron, Manager of Meridian’s Youth and Young Adult programs. She discussed 17 different phone apps and social media platforms — exploring in detail the pros and cons of each one and their relative safety for young users.

I don’t have the space in this column to get into the particulars as Angie did. But I can share some overall guidelines that all parents need to know when it comes to what their children are doing online and on their smartphones.

Before anything else, you need to convey to your children that their use of smartphones, tablets, computers, etc. is a privilege — not a right. As with any other privilege, it can be taken away if it’s misused. You as a parent should demand complete transparency on the part of your kids, and make it clear that you will closely monitor all of their online activities.

This means that you should know their passwords for every app and social media platform they’re a part of, as well as the privacy settings for each. These are things you need to check regularly and repeatedly. Not only do new apps come along, but the privacy settings within apps your kids are already using are sometimes arbitrarily changed by the program. They should only be “liking” or interacting with people they know personally — because unfortunately, the online world is filled with people who prey on children by pretending to be someone they’re not.

More generally, you need to make clear to your children what your expectations are, and encourage them to develop the critical thinking skills that will help them live up to those expectations. Before making a choice to do anything online, your kids should be asking themselves “Is this a wise decision? What would Mom or Dad think of me doing this?”

Just as with their “real-world” activities, the goal should be for kids to build open, trusting relationships with their parents when it comes to the use of social media and phone apps. Honesty and openness should be rewarded, while secrecy and online missteps should be dealt with appropriately.

And finally, children must be made to understand that the online world is forever. Any words they write or photos they post immediately become the property of the platform they’re posted on; they can’t be deleted, and they could be copied and manipulated by others to potentially harmful effect.

For more information, check out The National Cyber Security Alliance, which has some great resources for parents who want to keep their kids safe online.