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How to Keep Your Children Safe in the World of Social Media

November 09, 2015

Written by Kenny Tello, Mental Health Therapist at The Howard Phillips Center for Children & Families

Gone are the days when you only had to teach your children not to talk to strangers outside of the home. The advent of social media and the ever-increasing number of apps have made it a lot easier for predators to contact your children inside your home. Complete strangers can quickly become “friends” with your child and begin to “follow” them. It’s a mistake to think that your children are smart enough to know better (as we will see later) or that you can protect them by learning to adjust the settings on their apps.

To protect your children, you first have to know what the problem really is and understand it.

The Problem:

Most predators no longer pretend to be children. Nowadays, most predators are more “honest” about their age, especially if they plan to make contact with your children in person on a consistent basis. Instead of bluntly lying about their age, they find ways to emotionally connect with them. This makes it easier to manipulate them and maintain a relationship that will often move from an app to real life. In my line of work as a therapist who treats children who have been sexually abused, I often hear children defend their “relationship” with these predators. This is what makes it harder to protect them; your children have the illusion that the relationship is “safe.” They do not see the danger in it because an emotional connection has been established.

New apps become available every month. Many apps become popular because it gives people an opportunity to connect with others. It’s important to keep in mind that each app comes with a set of good and bad things. It’s a package. You may be able to minimize some risks by using the right settings, but there will always be a way around them. Predators know this and they will try to use a more “discreet” app to maintain contact with your children.

Likes” & “shares” are powerful incentives. For your children, it is very rewarding when their pictures or posts are “liked” or “shared.” Likes and shares have become a measure of popularity. Unfortunately, children also equate likes & shares with self-worth. Predators are experts at using likes, shares and praise-filled comments to build a bridge between them and your children.

Changes in children’s brains make them more susceptible. There’s a myth that when children reach a certain age, raging hormones are responsible for impulsivity, moodiness and being irresponsible. Hormones levels do change, but they are not the ones responsible for the changes you often see in teenagers and adolescents. Neuroscience has found that during the teenage years, the brain begins a sort of “pruning process.” The brain begins to get rid of what’s not needed and speeds up how the brain works. This makes it more effective at setting the stage for adulthood. This impacts 4 processes inside your children:

  • Emotional intensity. Children begin to experience emotions more intensely, both pleasant and unpleasant emotions. Therefore, any type of emotional connection is cherished even more.
  • Social influence. Identity and self-esteem move from being dependent on what parents say and think to what others - including predators – say and think.
  • Novelty seeking. Children around this age become easily bored. They are constantly looking for what’s new. A new phone, a new pair of shoes, a new “selfie,” a new experience, a new friend. Predators manipulate this novelty seeking by sharing about their own experiences and offering ways to help your children experience something new.
  • Curious exploration. Children begin to have a need to “push the envelope” and question everything. You may think that this makes them more difficult to manipulate; however, predators often become their allies in breaking the status quo.
Before I give the adolescent brain a bad rep, I have to say this: these changes are actually great and with the proper guidance, they lay the foundation for a healthy adulthood. However, this is a whole topic for another time.

For right now, here are 6 ways to minimize the risk on social media.

What you can do:

Change your mindset about predators. Avoid thinking that predators will only use coercion and threats to obtain pictures and videos of your children. Yes, many do, but the majority obtains them by your children consenting to send them. The emotional connection blinds children to the potential dangers of sending those pictures and videos. When you talk to your children about predators, talk about the possible “qualities” predators can have such as understanding, good listener, funny, relatable, wise, etc.

Monitor your children’s social media usage. On apps such as Facebook, make sure you’re friends with your children and their friends. If you’re a parent who enjoys posting things that your children may find annoying or embarrassing, then create another account and use it to monitor your children. Being “friends” with their friends will allow you to see what your children post even if they block you on their initial post. You will also be able to see what others comment and post. Once in a while, go through their list of “friends” and ask about them. Be curious though, rather than demanding.

Turn off most locations on their phones. Many phones have the location services turned on by default. Most phones give you the flexibility to select which apps will have access to their location. I know that this is a helpful option to track your children’s phone. However, many apps should not have access to your children’s location. It is dangerous and many predators use it to find children around their area that they can contact, manipulate and meet.

Engage your child’s brain. Have conversations about risky behaviors in social media. Ask them questions rather than lecture them. Avoid using only scare tactics. Instead, provide reasons and facts they can check. Find articles or videos of other adolescents that have had a bad experience. Watch it and then have a discussion with your children and their friends. Children relate better to others their age. One of their friends may say what you wanted to say but your children will hear it differently coming from a peer.

Do some research on the apps they use. It is virtually impossible to keep up with all the apps but you don’t have to. You just have to know about the apps your children have on their electronics (phone, tablet, computer, etc). Having electronics is a privilege! It is ok to go through them, preferably with your children’s knowledge, but you still have the right. You are their parent. Go through all the apps and folders by opening them. Ask about the ones you’ve never seen before. Keep in mind that there are a lot of apps that camouflage as genuine apps but they can be used to hide other apps, pictures and videos.

The best protection is your relationship with your children.

I created the acronym APPS to better remember four characteristics that are crucial in creating and maintaining a relationship with your children. Your relationship should be a safety net even if they already messed up. As a parent be:

  • Approachable Be open and listen more than you talk. If you’re listening to respond, then you’re not really listening. Listen with the intention to understand, even if you don’t agree.
  • Parent  This sounds obvious but the reality is that many parents are not involved in their children’s lives. They let electronics – TV, computer, game consoles, etc. – do the parenting.   Be involved and invest your time in your children.
  • Positive It is easier to use the words: no, stop, don’t. However, it is better to provide an alternative. Otherwise, you will end up repeating yourself a lot and feeling like they are disobeying on purpose.
  • Sympathetic Show compassion for what it means to be an adolescent nowadays. I often hear parents downplay the importance of issues brought up by their children. Remember that if you don’t show compassion for what you believe to be small issues, they won’t share their big issues with you. This is because everything feels like a big issue to them. And predators know and will use this to connect with them.