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5 Ways Parents Can Keep Kids Safe Online

Try these easy steps to make online life safer and more enjoyable.

Key points

  • Eighty-two percent of parents think it's important to spend time using the same online platforms as their teens.
  • Young people often use TikTok for mental health help, yet analysis shows that 83.7 percent of the mental health advice offered is misleading.
  • A pair of bills designed to strengthen online protections for children failed to move through Congress.

The metaverse, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, ChatGPT; new technologies are coming in faster than a parent can say, “Put down that phone!”

Rather than anguishing over what you may or may not know about these digital innovations, here are five easy ways to help keep your kids safe in 2023.

1. Stop focusing on “screen time.” Focus on “screen use” instead.

During every presentation I gave last year, parents were laser-focused on one concern: “screen time.” I sincerely hope we move past this in 2023 because focusing on “time” rather than “use” disregards so many benefits of technology. For example, using a screen to do research or to say “hi” to Grandma is vastly different from doom-scrolling endless TikTok videos (although this might be “educational” too, but more on that in a moment). I don’t believe there is a parent on the planet who wants their child missing out on doing online research or visiting with a geographically-distant relative.

Parental screen “time” paranoia is often focused on social media. But here, too, it helps to consider “use” rather than “time.” A recent Pew study found that 80 percent of teens say social media provides them with a space for connection with peers, creativity, and an opportunity to seek support. That’s in line with what I hear from students too.

We need to listen to young people when they say they use screens for “connection” and “support.” Just last year, the U.S. surgeon general warned of a “devastating” mental health crisis among adolescents, citing rising levels of anxiety, depression, and mental illness. So it is not surprising they’re using their screens to search for help, ask friends or experts for support, and to offer comfort to their peers.

This is not to say that some kids don’t spend too much “time” online, but it is much more productive for parents to discover what their kids use screens for rather than chastising them about “time.” Doing the latter usually leads to arguments, which closes the door on opportunities to offer support when your child may need it most.

Tip: Execute “Tech Agreements” with your children to set expectations on tech “use”

2. Dive in! The water’s fine.

It is impossible to guide your children through terrain that’s unfamiliar to you, so please dive in. Fortunately, many parents are already doing this. According to a YouGov survey of over 2,000 US parents of 13 to 17-year-olds, 82 percent think it's important for them to spend time using the same online platforms as their teens to better understand or facilitate conversations with them.

Many sites are making this easier by offering services like Family Pairing (on TikTok) and Family Center (on Snapchat and Instagram). These allow parents and guardians to link their accounts with their teens in order to access a variety of privacy and safety controls.

Tip: When you decide your child is mature enough to open their own social media account—remember, the minimum age of use on most sites is 13–you should open one too. Then, together, you can look at each site's privacy and safety offerings and decide what’s appropriate.

3. Point out misinformation.

More than ever, young people are using popular apps like YouTube and TikTok as search engines to investigate things they like and/or are curious about. While it’s nice to see kids using the Internet for research and learning, this can also be problematic in a couple of ways. First, the content on both of these sites is user-generated. That means anyone and everyone can post information. Secondly, a large number of users on both sites are young, and most young people are not experts on the topics they post about.

Plushcare, used with permission
Plushcare, used with permission

Here’s one example: Many young people turn to TikTok for mental health help.

In fact, the hashtag #mentalhealth has amassed over 53.9 billion views on the site. Recently, medically trained professionals from Plushcare analyzed 500 videos accessed via #mentalhealthtips and #mentalhealthadvice. They discovered that 83.7 percent of the advice offered was misleading. Even worse, 14.2 percent of videos were potentially damaging and could cause harm. And, 100 percent of the content for ADHD contained misleading information, the most of any condition in the analysis.

Misinformation is not limited to TikTok or mental health, of course. It is a serious problem that plagues most social media sites without any quick or clear remedy other than teaching young people how to analyze online information for themselves.

Tip: Advocate for media literacy in your children’s schools. Donate to organizations like the National Association for Media Literacy in Education which work tirelessly on this issue.

4. Take a peek behind the screen.

In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy discovered the great and powerful wizard is just an ordinary man behind a screen. Your children should know who/what lies behind their screens too. Explain that nearly every platform–from Google to TikTok to Instagram–is a company. These companies have one main objective: to make money. In order to do this, they need our time. The more time they extract from us, the more money they make from advertisers who use their platforms to sell their products.

Like Dorothy, who discovers she actually has more power than she thinks, we have a lot of power too. For example, we have the power to decide if we want to give our time to platforms or not. We have the power to read user agreements and privacy policies to determine if our time is a fair exchange for the opportunities they offer us in exchange.

The bottom line is that none of us are sitting ducks when it comes to tech use. We (this includes your kids) are customers, and if we don’t like the service we are getting, we have the power to take our time elsewhere.

Tip: Need help understanding the terms of popular sites and apps? Visit Terms of Service: Didn’t Read.

5. Become legislatively aware.

If you, like most parents, were busy over the holidays, you probably missed this important news regarding legislation aimed at protecting kids online. As Forbes reported:

A pair of bills designed to strengthen online protections for children was left out of a fiscal year 2023 spending plan Congress is aiming to pass this week, despite heightened concerns about online privacy and an advocacy campaign by parents whose children’s deaths have been tied to Internet activity.

The first bill that got jettisoned was “The Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act.” It would have prohibited Internet companies from collecting personal information about kids under 16 without consent. The second bill, “The Kids Online Safety Act,” would have required Internet apps and websites to set up safeguards restricting access to minors’ personal data, provide tools for parental monitoring, and require sites to disclose certain operating mechanisms, like how they use algorithms.

Proponents of these bills blame their demise on lobbying by tech companies. But the reality is bills fail in the dark. The more parents advocate for change, the more likely legislative efforts aimed at protecting children online will come to fruition.

Tip: Support organizations like Fairplay that work to pass legislation to protect kids online.

These five easy, doable things can make online life for you and your kids safer and more enjoyable in 2023.

More from Diana E. Graber M.A.
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