Parents want to make sure their kids are handling social media correctly, but it’s tough to know just how involved parents should be. We asked experts to share their best tips for monitoring your kids’ online behavior and best practices for raising kids who are good digital citizens.
Know where your kids are spending time on social media
“The first thing you need to do is know what social media your kids are using, whether it is Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Musical.ly or something else,” says Denise DeRosa, tech parenting expert and founder of Cyber Sensible Consulting . “Then, you should make sure you understand what it is, how your kids are using it and what information is being shared.”
One of the best ways to do that is to have your kids show you how they’re using their social media platforms. Ask questions about how they use it, how their friends are using it, what they like about it and how it makes them feel.
There are pros and cons to every social media app. “It’s not about good apps and bad apps, but more abut how are you using them,” says Devorah Heitner, Ph.D., author of the book “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World ” and founder of Raising Digital Natives .
Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor of Common Sense Media , says the best way to monitor kids on social media is to follow their accounts. She adds that parents should not approach the situation as if kids are already doing something wrong. “Most kids use social media pretty safely,” she says.
Set general guidelines that apply across all platforms
With new apps coming out often, existing platforms evolving fairly regularly and kids’ fickle tastes changing daily, making sense of social media can be overwhelming. The good news is that parents do not need to know the ins and outs of every single app. It’s likely not even feasible. “You would have to quit your job to do that,” says DeRosa.
Overall guidelines for connecting online include:
- Be careful with the information you share on a public platform;
- Focus on connecting with people you know in real life and be skeptical of people you don’t know who want to connect with you;
- Present yourself as you would in social settings that include your relatives or neighbors; and
- Be kind.
Give your kids space on social media
While following your child on social media is encouraged, that doesn’t mean you should follow all of their friends, too. “It’s just like how you wouldn’t tag along to every movie. You need to allow your kids their own social space,” says DeRosa. Knorr cautions against tagging all of your child’s friends in photos you may post on social media.
She adds that there’s no need to comment, like or interact with everything your child posts. “If what you’re seeing is safe and okay, don’t insert yourself,” DeRosa advises.
Keep the conversation going
“Parents need to keep an open dialogue. Talking about social media is not a one and done conversation,” says Heitner.
Checking in regularly, both on their phones and with face-to-face conversations, can help establish an exchange of information that’s helpful for both parents and kids.
“The key is developing open lines of communication so if kids do run into a problem, they come to you,” says Justin Patchin, Ph.D., Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire , and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center . Frequently remind kids of all ages, even older teenagers, that you are available to help.
Let kids know you’ll be checking devices
Spying on kids often doesn’t work, may drive kids underground, and can be harmful. Patchin says he is not a big fan of parents using monitoring software or spying on kids. “If your kid doesn’t know that you’re checking their devices and you confront them over something you’ve found, it will damage the relationship and trust,” says Patchin.
“Kids should know devices are fair game at any time for parents to check in on, especially younger kids,” says Patchin.
Review info sharing and privacy settings
Less is more when it comes to sharing personal information online, but it’s not unusual for kids to use their birthday in their user name or share their full name and location in their public profiles. The experts agree that such information is best kept private.
DeRosa suggests that parents review with their children what information they are sharing and also sit down and go through privacy settings on each platform. “Not only do they know that you are proactively involved, but you’re helping them understand what they’re sharing as well and teaching them how to manage their own safety,” she says.
Check in every few months to see if the app has changed and to verify that settings are where you and child last agreed to keep them.
Talk about sexting
The conversation surrounding sexting may not be comfortable, but it is necessary. “One third of kids have sexted, and all kids need to fully understand the potential consequences. There could be criminal implications, but more likely there will be reputational consequences,” says Patchin.
Knorr says that we need to make sure our kids understand that there is a risk in taking inappropriate photos. “We need to help our kids learn that any photo or video taken on a device with an internet connection can be shared far and wide, and they should take only photos that are okay to share,” she says.
Going live might not be wise
Many apps, including Facebook and Musical.ly offer live streaming that let’s kids share with people around the globe in real time, and that’s not something that every child is ready for. “I don’t recommend it,” says Knorr, “but if kids want to do it, limit the audience. Don’t live stream with strangers and don’t live stream from your bedroom.”
“You have to tell your kids that live streaming is a tool with a lot of power and a lot of risks, and there can be significant consequences to broadcasting yourself to the world. You are exposing yourself to the risk of personal privacy and reputation,” says Knorr.
Encourage actual face time
Social media is undoubtedly how kids connect with their friends, but time spent together in the real world and not just virtually has many benefits.
Parents should encourage kids to spend time with friends when possible, and put down phones. “Parents and kids are saying that they’re addicted. It’s important for us all to take a step back,” says Knorr, citing a Common Sense Media study  on technology addiction.
Parents should also help kids learn when interactions are best handled offline, be it raising a concern with a friend or righting a wrong.
“Everyone wishes digital citizenship was a vaccination but they are always going to make mistakes,” says Heitner. “There will be jokes that aren’t funny, or kids will be hurt by a friend not commenting or sharing something. The best thing we can do is teach them to apologize face to face.”
Model appropriate behavior
Kids are likely to do as we do, including what we do online. “Share your social media with them to demonstrate good digital citizenship by example,” suggests Knorr.
“We can’t expect our kids to behave well and then turn around and spout off online and in Facebook comments,” says Patchin. “The election is a great opportunity for parents. We have strong beliefs about who we like and don’t like, and we can demonstrate to our kids how to disagree with someone respectfully.”
Parents should also model good behavior like asking permission before taking a photo and then asking permission to share it and with whom. “Doing so helps kids learn that you don’t have the right to take photos and broadcast them without permission,” says Knorr. She adds that not oversharing photos is another way to model good social media habits.
Use Common Sense Media as a resource
If you’re wondering about a new app or wanting to better understand how kids connect in an online game or looking for the advice of trusted adults on a social media trend, check out Common Sense Media . It is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to helping kids thrive in a world of media and technology.
Common Sense Media also offers ways for parents to get involved in spreading the message of good digital citizenship in several different ways.
- Become a parent facilitator. Through the Connecting Families  program, parents can bring Common Sense’s resources to their schools through Parent Talks, Conversation Cases, and the Family Toolbox. The program is a year long, totally free, and gives parents everything they need to start the conversation about digital citizenship.
- Registering  on the site connects you with exclusive access to content for both the home and the classroom, and you can contribute your own reviews so you can help out other parents as well as see what they’ve said.
- Donate  so that the organization can develop free tools, advice and games to help parents, schools and policymakers in their efforts to raise media-savvy kids.
More from Make It Better: