Growing up, I had little to no supervision online. My parents didn’t realize the extent of the internet and how dangerous it could be. To them, it was an educational tool to do research and type up reports for school, but for me, it quickly became a tie to the outside world that I had been sheltered from. Online, I could chat with friends at all hours of the day, look up whatever I wanted, play video games, and watch movies that my parents would’ve likely vetoed. Even though I was a “good” kid, I was tempted on more than one occasion to chat with boys, and I quickly realized that there were areas of the internet that weren’t safe.
Now that I’m a mom, I know how important it is to stay up-to-date with the apps and technology my kids will one day have access to. While I love aimlessly scrolling through TikTok, I have my reservations about allowing my children to use anything similar. My kids are only 6 and 5 years old, so it’s easy enough to keep them away from apps on my phone. But after talking to friends and family members who have pre-teens and teens, I’ve heard how they are struggling to monitor what their children are watching and putting out there on apps like TikTok. I know I’ll be there soon too, so I reached out to two experts on social media safety to help parents navigate this tricky topic.
Do: Learn About the Apps (and Games) That Are Popular With Kids and Teens
“The level of parental involvement in apps will vary depending on the app and the child’s age,” said Mark, a social media expert and founder of Marks Get Set; “however, it is generally advisable for parents to be at least somewhat familiar with the apps their children are using, as this can help them keep up with potentially dangerous trends. Additionally, parents should ensure that their children are using apps safely and responsibly and that they understand the potential risks of using apps,” he added.
Do: Set Ground Rules
There were a few times growing up that I was bullied on websites like Facebook, but because my parents and I weren’t open with one another, I didn’t know how to explain what was happening. I was feeling unsafe at home where other teens could pick on me by messaging me mean things or leaving horrible comments on my pictures. Because some parents are unaware of the danger of online bullies and dangerous adults, it is important to learn more about what could go wrong online and how you and your child can come up with a plan to stay safe.
“When it comes to social media like TikTok, parents need to be aware of what their children are watching and sharing. It’s important to have a conversation with your children about online safety and to set some ground rules. For example, you might want to agree on an appropriate amount of time to spend on social media each day, or you might want to agree on what types of content are appropriate to share. You can also use parental controls to help manage your child’s social media usage,” said Mark.
While my husband and I had unfettered access to the internet growing up, we have both agreed to ground rules with our children. They may still be pretty young, but we are practicing getting in the habit of transparency with their tablets by letting them know they are monitored and setting limits on what they can and can’t do online.
When I asked Mark about the parental controls he said, “I would recommend both transparency and [parental] access to passwords, as well as using parental/family controls. Parents need to be aware of what their children are doing online and have the ability to monitor their activity.”
Don’t: Assume Parental Controls Are a Cure-All
“Sometimes parents want a quick fix for their social media worries: a parental control that will allow them to see all of their children’s activities or a blanket ban on certain apps. But teens will get around controls, and the moment you ban one app, another similar one will pop up,” said Deborah, a parenting expert and founder of Parenthood365.
Do: Start a Conversation
“What’s better [than relying on parental controls]—if harder—is to start a conversation about digital life and keep that conversation going and going and going,” said Deborah. “Remember that teens are more motivated by pleasure than pain, so fear-based warnings will come off tone-deaf and inert in comparison to the dopamine hit that comes from social media interactions,” Deborah said.
…fear-based warnings will come off tone-deaf and inert in comparison to the dopamine hit that comes from social media interactions.
Deborah also suggested parents approach teen’s digital life with genuine curiosity. “What’s interesting to them? What are their favorite apps? What are they noticing that bothers them?” she said. “Don’t underestimate the analytic powers of teens. You can use that to engage in conversations about big tech algorithms, the underside of seemingly flawless influencers, and the awesome power of social media to connect and even inspire ethical action. Talk to them about how you use digital spaces,” said Deborah.
Do: Keep Communication Open
Growing up, I heard meeting people on the internet was dangerous. While that can be true, I have also met some of my closest friends online and have used social media for work, but I wondered what the best approach would be to talk about private messaging with my kids. So I asked the experts what they suggested.
“When it comes to the dangers of private messaging and interacting with potentially dangerous people on apps, I suggest parents handle apps like TikTok by being involved in their child’s online activity. Keep the lines of communication open with your child, and be sure to monitor their activity on all social media platforms. Additionally, it is important to educate your child about online safety and remind them not to share personal information with strangers. Finally, if they have any concerns, make sure children feel happy to reach out to a trusted adult for help,” he said.
Start conversations and safe practices from a young age, and make it part of your family’s safety plan just like you would with setting boundaries about talking to strangers in person.
Don’t: Ignore Your Gut
Mamas have that gut instinct for a reason. If your kids are saying everyone uses an app and it’s safe, and you still feel unsettled by it, stick by that feeling. Social media can be a great way to connect, but it also is an easy way to give strangers, friends, and bullies access to your child at all times of the day. And while we all want to believe that our children are open and honest, that is not always the case.
When I saw a TikTok talking about the dangers of children being groomed to post inappropriate videos in private, I was immediately thankful for the warning on an app I use daily. Predators can be really tricky—from inappropriate content on popular games like Roblox or private messaging kids on TikTok. Be aware, trust your instinct, and have open conversations with your partner, caregivers, and children so you are all on the same page.
Do: Model Healthy Social Media Habits
As a parent, it can be easy to tell our children to do what we say, not what we do, but as many of us who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s know, that method of parenting did not do a lot to stop kids from exploring. When I asked Deborah, she had some great insight.
“Have family discussions about tech-healthy habits—for you and for them. One of the more pernicious aspects of social media is not the content but how it can interrupt sleep, something teens desperately need for mental health. Give them permission to call you out when your own tech habits aren’t conducive to healthy living. All of this builds trust. Rules and boundaries are important—that’s part of our job as parents. But even more important is the ongoing discussion of the WHY behind the rules. That’s where learning happens,” Deborah said.