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Your child's online identity
In an era when parents are posting pregnancy and birth announcements online, setting up email addresses and domain names for unborn children, and blogging and pinning all the joys and aggravations of parenthood, it's no wonder that kids are gravitating to Instagram and Snapchat. According to our survey of more than 1,000 our site parents, nearly half of children ages 5 to 8 have access to social media and 1 in 5 have a social media account.
It might not seem like a big deal when your 6-year-old begs to play Minecraft online with her friends. But opening the door to the social media world can lead the way to a host of problems: cyberbullying, online predators, sexting, inappropriate images, school-age drama, and a nagging concern that screen time is supplanting time that might be better spent with family, friends, school work, and hobbies.
As a parent, what can you do? First of all, don't get taken by surprise. Start by figuring out what children (including yours) are up to online. Then you can have some conversations about the potential pitfalls of social media and make sure you're encouraging healthy habits and appropriate behavior.
When do children start getting interested in social media?
Many parents think of social media as a tween and teen issue, but some kids start getting interested before then. Parents in our survey say their children are all about playing games and watching videos.
The Minecraft crew is logging in as young as age 5. While many young Minecraft players are content to play offline, many are drawn to an online community of multiplayer servers and game-play videos on YouTube – and yes, YouTube is a social media site. Let your child roam free there and she's likely to run into something unsavory or questionable within minutes. Kids are also excited to connect with friends, and they're especially drawn to Snapchat and Instagram. Facebook, too, but to quote one teenager, "Facebook is for old people."
The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is a federal law that requires apps and websites to get parents' permission to gather information from children younger than 13 and limits how they can use that data. Sites like Facebook and Instagram don't allow children younger than 13 to join, though that doesn't stop a child from faking his age to open an account.
Parents who post about children on social media
There are lots of different approaches. Sergio created his son's Facebook account when he was just a month old (yes, he fudged the birthdate to get around COPPA). He uses the account as an online scrapbook, to preserve memories for his son. He also avoids posting anything that might be sensitive, like videos of his son's umbilical cord getting cut or potty training: "In Facebook, I upload pictures of happiness, basically."
"Sharenting" is a rising trend. New York mom Rakisha is active on social media and often posts about her two grade-school daughters. But your kids might not want you posting about them online, especially when their friends start to notice. Her older daughter was 8 when she first said she was worried about being embarrassed. Now Rakisha, who's always been careful with privacy settings, has started using nicknames for her daughters as added protection. She also shows her daughters what she's posting, which helps to reassure them.
Of course, some parents are more conservative. According to our survey, 1 in 5 parents don't post anything about their kids – because of privacy concerns, but also because they're just too busy or not interested. Predictably, younger parents feel more comfortable sharing family info on social media, while older parents (age 35 and up) are more likely to abstain. But for parents who skip the whole scene, they might have more surprises ahead of them, once their kids start playing online.
What children are actually up to on social media
Parents of young children feel certain they have the upper hand when it comes to managing their online activities, but their confidence evaporates by the time kids enter the tween years, researchers have found. In a study by the computer security company McAfee, about 80 percent of parents of 10- to 12-year-olds admitted being unable to monitor their children's online behavior because they're overwhelmed and outsmarted.
Adelina didn't think her 8-year-old son had a social media account until a friend pointed out that he plays his favorite iPad games online with his California classmates – and strangers. "Oh my gosh, I don't even realize sometimes what my children are exactly doing," she says. And Carol was certain her grade-school boys only played online with each other and friends. But when she asked, her 9-year-old told her he plays Clash of Clans with "thousands of people."
Close supervision and parental controls help, but they don't protect kids from using poor judgment or naively blundering into a situation beyond their coping skills. When Tara's daughter asked to join Animal Jam, the Massachusetts mom checked out the virtual world and reviewed the site's rules and parental controls. But she was caught by surprise when the site suspended her daughter for pretending her online character drank two beers –using the misspelling "bears" to get around the site's content blocker. Tara was glad the site took action. It provided another opportunity for the family to talk about online behavior and set stricter limits.
The dangers and concerns for parents
Clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair sees no reason for young children to be on sites like Animal Jam or Club Penguin, or chatting with strangers on a Minecraft server. "Put the brakes on!" she says. "You've got so much to lose, and so little to gain."
Potential pitfalls for kids online include:
- Strangers and predators: This is the top concern for the families in our survey. Still, parents typically trust their kids online. "A lot of them feel, 'My kid is safe and smart,'" says Victoria Rideout, a researcher who specializes in how families use digital media. Yet our survey found that one-third of parents hadn't talked with their children about staying safe online.
- Sexual, violent, and other inappropriate content: Kids are likely to encounter language and behavior you'd never knowingly expose them to. Even an innocent search query can lead to not-so-innocent images, and games and videos can be shockingly violent.
- Cyberbullying, peer pressure, and drama: Classmates now gather online to play, and kids can feel left out. Texts, chats, and posts often go unseen by parents, offering an opening for mean and nasty behavior. Taken to an extreme, social media is just another way for bullies to belittle other kids.
- Privacy, poor judgment, and long-term consequences: With less supervision, kids may feel freer to experiment with behavior and personas they would never risk at home. But the stakes are high: If a child swears, jokingly says something that comes across as a threat, or in a silly moment posts a picture of her bare bottom, that misstep can follow her for a long time.
In addition to the obvious dangers, there's also the underlying concern – that your kids could be learning more offline. Games, videos, social networks, and other types of social media can be distracting and addictive, taking away your child's enjoyment of school, activities, and friends. Steiner-Adair, co-author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, is especially worried about screens disrupting the close bond between parents and children, and displacing imaginative free play at a developmentally critical age. "The most important thing is for them to be playing with friends in real life. Online, 5- to 8-year-olds are not going to be interacting in any sophisticated way," she says.
Plenty of parents (and even some experts) do see benefits for kids from social media. Games like Minecraft may teach math and reading skills, and other games might boost hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness. But do they really offer more than reading a book, building a fort, or playing soccer? As kids get older, social networks might be an opportunity to connect with friends and family, discover groups with similar interests, share thoughts and opinions, and even create original art and music. But elementary-school kids aren't there yet, and that's not how they're using the Internet.
"There are all sorts of reasons that you might want your child to be playing these games," Steiner-Adair says. "But you have to be honest with yourself: This is a babysitter. And is it the best babysitter?"
Strategies for monitoring your child's social media use
Our survey found that about half of parents set ground rules for social media, but far fewer actively supervise their children's online activity. It's important to have conversations and be actively involved, and there are plenty of tools that can help.
- Ask your child what games and sites he's interested in. Find out if he meets up with friends or other players online and sends them messages. Sit down together and have him show you. And ask other parents what their children are playing so you know what's popular and how other families are handling it.
- Join any network your child uses, whether it's Club Penguin or Instagram, and add each other as friends. If you notice a lull in activity, be aware that your child might have gone around you to set up another account.
- Keep screens in public areas of your home, like the kitchen or living room. Don't allow children to take them into their bedrooms.
- Decide on a plan to supervise your child's use of social media. Make it clear that you'll regularly review texts, chats, and other activity – and then follow through.
- Set up parental controls: Check device, site, and app settings, and consider downloading software. Many kid-centered games have a parent dashboard where you can adjust permissions for chats, messaging, and more.
- Agree to a contract that lays out your expectations for online behavior, limits screen time, and spells out consequences for breaking the rules.
Help your child develop healthy media habits
Even adults make mistakes on social media, and you can expect your child to blunder. But you can minimize the risk of missteps by setting expectations, encouraging good behavior, and introducing the concept of digital citizenship.
- Talk about privacy: Explain that even something you share privately with a friend can be easily broadcast far and wide, intentionally or by mistake – and might be impossible to delete. Spell out what private information should never be shared online, including names, addresses, phone numbers, and birthdays.
- Remind kids to be kind and considerate: They should behave online just as they would in real life. Some parents tell their children to never share anything online they wouldn't want their grandmother to read.
- Discuss cyberbullying, and explain that they need to tell an adult about any mean or nasty behavior so that everyone can feel safe. Teach them that technology should never be used to hurt someone.
- Talk about strangers, and that the rules still apply online: Don't "friend" anyone you don't know, and if a stranger makes you uncomfortable, immediately tell an adult you trust. Chatting with other players on social play sites designed for kids may be okay, but outside of those sites, never chat, text, or email with anyone you don't know.
- Be very clear that inappropriate pictures and language are never acceptable: They should never participate in rude language or sexy talk, and should never send or receive pictures of people without clothing. Assure them that they can come to you for help if they ever feel a message or behavior is inappropriate.
- Assure your child that she can confide in you if she's ever uncomfortable or worried about something that has happened online. You don't want her to keep something secret and avoid getting help because she's afraid of getting in trouble.
For more help getting your child off to a happy, healthy start online, visit these sites:
- American Academy of Pediatrics' SafetyNet rounds up family-friendly resources including a media time pledge and online programs for discussing online safety with your children.
- Webonauts Internet Academy is an online game targeted to ages 8 and older to teach the basics of digital citizenship.
- Common Sense Media rates and reviews websites, apps, TV shows, and other media, helping parents choose age-appropriate content for their children. The site also offers advice on social media, cyberbullying, and more.
- Facebook's Family Safety Center explains how to protect privacy on Facebook and offers advice to parents, teachers, and teens on staying safe online.
- The Harvard School of Public Health Prevention Research Center's Outsmarting the Smart Screens! recommends tools to enforce screen time limits, including apps and a plug-in timer.