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Janet Hicks Ph.D.

Keeping Children Safe

What every parent should know about social media

Social media can be both helpful and harmful for children. Recently, I presented information to children in grades four and five in three different states about social aggression and its relationship to social media. What I learned from these children was scary and I want to share this information as well as some tips and strategies to help parents ensure safe use of technology.

First, let me convey some of what I learned from these children. I asked, “How many of you have an account on social media?” Every hand in the room went up regardless of the geographic location. This probably doesn’t surprise you and it also didn’t throw me off guard. It was the next two responses that scared me tremendously. I asked, “How many of you are speaking to people online that you have never met in person and your parents are not aware you are talking to them?” Approximately 75% of all children raised their hands. Again, this was consistent across all three states. Finally, I asked, “How many of you met someone face-to-face that you originally met online and your parents do not know?” Around 25% of the children raised their hands.

Later, I met with some of these students privately and they disclosed information (their words) “other kids are doing that adults don’t know about.” For example, these young children shared details about sexting online, how it works, and methods to enter “the deep web.” These responses made it clear that parents need information to keep children safe.

Let me share some of the student's responses and tips to help parents. First, the students shared that many games connected to social media sites use a form of virtual reality. While characters are animated, discussions are real. Once two or more entities meet up on the games, they get acquainted, share personal information, and often go to chat rooms or other places where webcams can be used. From this point, sexting can occur and/or predators can use personal information shared to abuse children or stalk them face-to-face. According to these children, many predators give children information so they learn to access the deep web where criminal exploitation takes place.

As parents, we must not put our heads in the sand and pretend these things are not happening. Our children’s safety depends on our knowledge of technology, social media, and how our children are using them. Following are a few tips that may help.

1) Keep the computer in a central location rather than in your child’s bedroom. This ensures that parents can see who children are talking to. Children are less likely to engage in unsafe acts if a parent is nearby.

2) Discuss privacy and the dangers of giving personal information out online. Also, teach children to use privacy settings when on the computer.

3) Monitor sites your child is allowed to visit and block those unsuitable. Do you want your child to have access to social media? If so, learn about these sites so you are aware of the dangers and can set boundaries.

4) Learn about technology so you can access and have knowledge about all sites your child uses.

5) Preview sites before allowing children to visit.Many games appear harmless but are not.

I am interested in hearing tips or strategies other parents used that may be helpful. Feel free to share them in the comments for others to learn.

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About the Author

Janet Hicks, Ph.D., is a professor of counselor education at Belmont University and a licensed professional counselor who specializes in child and adolescent development.