In addition to normalizing and discussing body talk, boundaries, consent, and puberty it’s also vital to teach your children to protect themselves online. Kids are curious! They are bound to hear things from their friends, in books, and on TV, and the first thing they are likely to do is Google it. Unfortunately, this can lead to accidental exposure to material far beyond what they are seeking in that moment. When it comes to internet use it’s important to agree on boundaries with your child and stay in close communication with them about technology – especially a phone, if they have one. Federal law prohibits people under age 13 from signing up for accounts on social media platforms and apps like TikTok and Instagram, although this age limit is widely ignored. If you want to use this law as a legitimate excuse to keep your tween from signing up, you can learn more about the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule here.
Passwords/Social Media Contracts
Although it’s helpful to know your child's passwords, they are probably much more digitally savvy than you and can easily change them. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t require them to share them. Instead of developing an adversarial relationship with your child over technology use, you may want to have regular check-ins with them, review their privacy settings, and let them know you have the right and responsibility to access accounts— if needed. For instance, some parents ask children to put their passwords into a sealed envelope that can be accessed only under certain circumstances. Organizations like Common Sense Media and Culture Reframed have model social media contracts and tech guides parents can use to make these smartphone agreements with their children. Excess use of technology at the expense of face-to-face interactions can result in isolation, withdrawal from activities, anxiety, depression, and feeling less connected, so setting limits can be very helpful.
To minimize the physical and emotional adverse effects of screen time and to maximize the healing power of sleep, many parents make the decision to not allow technology in their child’s bedroom at bedtime. This can reduce stress associated with engaging in social media as their bodies should be winding down for the day, while eliminating the temptation to scroll, post, and comment into the late night hours. You can also have them turn off color so all text/graphics are grey, which has been demonstrated to reduce interest and engagement.
Be On the Lookout for Certain Apps
Ask your child about any apps you don’t recognize on your or their devices. Some apps can mask predators, who may be other kids or adults. What do the apps do? Have them show you. Here are some specific features to look out for:
- Apps with content that "disappears” after a set period of time. These apps can give the user a false sense of security because the recipient can always save or screenshot the material.
- Apps with location/check-in features that would allow unwanted people to find or follow them. Posting locations in real time can lead to stalking or invite predators.
- Apps that allow users to ask and answer questions anonymously. These apps such as YikYak can lead to hurt feelings, drama, and bullying.
Online Communication - Texting and Sexting
Unfortunately, it is not too early to start having the discussion about texting and sexting (the sending of suggestive or sexually explicit texts or photos) with your tween. In the United States, children get their own cell phones at age 10 on average, so these conversations should be underway well before then. Teach them to stop and think before they post or forward anything. Is it necessary? Is it kind? Will anyone be hurt? You can start by sharing your posts with your child and explaining why you feel they are acceptable, and why you feel some others are not (for instance, negative comments that might hurt others’ feelings). Teaching them to ask permission from friends and family
before posting photos or content is also a good practice, and you can model this by asking your child's permission before posting content of them on your own accounts.
Any picture, video, text, or email exchange they have with one person may not be private and can be permanent, even if it’s on an app (such as Snapchat or vanishing texts on Instagram) that deletes content after a short period. Once it leaves their device, they no longer have control over where it goes or how it’s used. One rule of thumb you might consider suggesting is that they never send a photo, video, or message by email or text that they wouldn’t want a grandparent, future employer, or all their peers to see– no matter how much they trust the recipient(s). And never send one of somebody who is unclothed (including themselves)!
Because sexting, including the sending of suggestive or sexually explicit texts or
photos (including nudes/partially nude pictures), is increasingly common, even among younger tweens and teens, you may want to start by giving them the facts: federal law prohibit both sending and receiving of explicit images. If they receive a photo of anyone under 18 who is unclothed, they must delete it immediately and tell a trusted adult. Creating, possessing, or distributing nude or explicit photos of someone under 18 can result in charges of child pornography or sexual exploitation of a minor, even for those under age 18. And yes, “possessing” means just having it on their phone. If your child is being pressured to participate in sexting because “everyone cool is doing it”, talk to them about how to respond (or not) to the person asking. Giving your child these tools can empower him instead of making them feel embarrassed or victimized.