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If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram, you’ll know I wear a lot of hats: romance author, parent of funny tweenagers, part-time teacher, amateur homesteader, grumbling celiac and the wife of a seriously outdoorsy guy.
Because I’m an author with a major publisher in today’s competitive market, I’ve been tasked with stepping up my social media brand: participation, creation and all. The more transparent and likable I am online, the better my books sell. Therefore, to social media I go.
It’s rare to find someone with no social media presence these days, but there’s a marked difference between posting a few pictures for family and friends and actively creating social media content as part of your daily life.
With a whopping 95% of teens polled having access to smartphones (and 98% of teens over 15), according to an August Pew Research Center survey on teens, social media and technology, it doesn’t look like social media platforms are going away anytime soon.
Not only are they key social tools, but they also allow teens to feel more a part of things in their communities. Many teens like being online, according to a November Pew Research Center survey on teen life on social media. Eighty percent of the teens surveyed felt more connected to what is happening in their friends’ lives, while 71% felt social media allows them to showcase their creativity.
So, while posting online is work for me, it’s a way of life for the tweens and teens I see creating and publishing content online. As a parent of two middle schoolers, I know how important social media is to them, and I also know what’s out there. I see the good, the bad and the viral, and I’ve have put together some guidelines, based on what I’ve seen, for my fellow parents to watch for.
Here are eight questions to ask yourself as you check out your children’s social media accounts.
If you don’t, it’s time to start. It’s like when I had to look up the term “situationship,” I saw that ignorance is not bliss in this case. Or really any case when it comes to your children. Both of my children have smartphones, but even if your children don’t have smartphones, if they have any sort of device — phone, tablet, school laptop — it’s likely they have some sort of social media account out there. Every app our children wish to add to their smart devices comes through my husband’s and my phone notifications for approval. Before I approve any apps, I’ll read the reviews, run an internet search and text my mom friends for their experience.
If I’m still uncertain about an app, I’ll hold off on approving it until I can sit down with my children and ask them why they want it. Sometimes just waiting and forcing a short discussion is enough to convince them they no longer want it. In our household, I avoid any apps that run social surveys, allow anonymous feedback or require the individual to use location services.
If you don’t have your family phone plan all hooked together with parental controls, I’d advise setting that up ASAP. Because different devices and apps have different ways to monitor and set up parental controls, it’s impossible to link all the options here. However, a quick search will give you exactly the coverage you are comfortable with, including apps that track your child’s text messages and changing the settings on your child’s phone to lock down at a certain time every night.
The top social media platforms teens use today are YouTube (95% of teens polled), TikTok (67%), Instagram (62%) and Snapchat (59%), according to the Pew Research Center survey on teens and social media tech. Other social media platforms teens use less frequently are Twitter, Reddit, WhatsApp and Facebook. Most notably, Facebook is seeing a significant downturn in teen users. This list isn’t exhaustive, however. I would check out your children’s devices for group chat apps (such as Slack or Discord) and also scroll through their sport or activity apps where group chat capabilities exist.
I’ve seen preteens and teens using their real names, birthdate, home address, pets’ names, locker numbers or their school baseball team. Any of that information could be used to identify your child and location in real life or using a quick Google search. All of that is an absolute “no” in our house.
I also tell my kids not to answer the fun surveys and quizzes that invite children to share their unique information and repost it for others to see. These can be useful tools for predators and people trying to steal your children’s identity.
What I do: I made the choice a long ago to withhold the names of my children and partner. It’s not an exact science, and I know some clever digging could find them. For my husband, it’s for the sake of his privacy and also the protection of his professionalism. Just because he’s married to a romance author doesn’t mean he should have to answer for my online antics, whatever they may be. For my children, I want to avoid anything embarrassing that could be traced back to them during their college application season.
Even if your children keep their social media profiles private (more on that later), their biographical information, screen name and avatar or profile picture are public information.
Do an internet search of your child’s name to see what’s out there and scroll through images to make sure there isn’t anything you wouldn’t want to be made public. In our household, I’ve asked my children to use generic items or illustrated avatars in their social media bios.
What I do: Parents who do have active social media accounts may want to do a search of their own names. When my first book was published in 2019, I did a search of my name and images and found many photos of my children that came directly from my social media pages. I hadn’t posted pictures of them, but I did use a family photo as my profile photo and those are public record. Once I deleted them, the photos disappeared.
Another “no” in our household is posting videos or photos of our home or bedrooms. Something that feels innocent and innocuous to your middle schooler may not feel that way to an adult seeking out inappropriate content.
I learned this from one of my children’s Pinterest accounts. My kid loves to create themed videos using her own photos and stock pictures, and she’s gained over 500 followers in a short period of time. She has completely followed our rules and I know, because I check and follow her myself — but it hasn’t stopped the influx of adult men following her content.
What we do: Over the holidays, I sat with her and went through each follower one by one and blocked anyone we decided was there for the wrong reasons. In the end, we blocked close to 30 adult men on her account. (I also know that some predators cleverly disguise themselves as children or teens, and we may not catch them all, but this is still a worthy exercise.)
We also talk to our children about how to protect themselves. They wouldn’t want those strangers standing in their bedroom; therefore, they don’t want to post videos of their bedroom or bathroom or classroom for strangers to view.
This is a tricky one for lots of reasons. For content creators to build their following, they need to remain public on social media. If your child is an entrepreneur or artist hoping to grab attention, locking down their account will prevent that from happening.
That said, a way around this is to have two accounts. First, a private one, locked down and only used for family and close friends, and second, a public one that lacks identifiers but showcases whatever branding the child is hoping to grow. I’ve come across some well-managed public accounts for children who have giant followings and noticed they are usually run by parents, who state that right in the profile. I like this. If your children want public profiles because they are hoping to catch the attention of a talent scout, having the accounts monitored by a responsible adult who has their best interest in mind is a healthy compromise.
This is the exception, however. Most tweens and teens today use their social media for socializing with local friends. The benefit of keeping their account as private (or as private as can be) is threefold. It allows them to screen who follows their content, thus preventing our Pinterest fiasco. It prevents strangers from accessing their content and making it viral without their permission. And it protects them from unsolicited contact with strangers.
Not all social media platforms have the option to make your account “private.” For example, YouTube has parental controls that can be adjusted at any time. TikTok and Instagram can be made private (which means users must approve followers) by making the change in the account settings. Once the account is private, a little padlock will show next to the username.
Snapchat allows users to approve followers on a case-by-case basis as well as turn off features that disclose a user’s location. Notably, Snapchat also informs users when another user takes a screenshot of their story, which is a feature other social media platforms don’t have yet.
Most group chat apps don’t have the ability to go private so much as they ask users to approve of follower requests. Take time to discuss with your children who they allow to follow them and what personal information they allow those followers to know. It’s also a great time to teach them the art of “blocking” those individuals who are unsafe or unkind.
My suggestion is to log in, scroll around and even ask your children to teach you about the platforms they use. Then, when they roll their eyes at you, go ahead and tell them about your first Hotmail email address and the way you picked the perfect emo playlist on your Myspace page … and when they’re bent over laughing, sneak a peek at their follower list. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.