Keeping Teens Safe Online Requires A Mix of Monitoring and Teaching

Keeping Teens Safe Online Requires A Mix of Monitoring and Teaching

While social media was meant to bring people together in a positive way, we’re all well aware of the potential abuses, such as cyberbullying.

One of the main reasons that social media is ripe for abuse is because many apps allow users to be anonymous. This can be a particularly scary landscape for parents of teens – how do we keep them safe while allowing them the space to participate?  

It’s a balancing act for sure, as many teens lack the maturity to fully understand the consequences of their online actions. At the same time, if you restrict their use too much, they may do it anyways without your knowledge.

To help keep kids safe, I recommend a mix of monitoring and teaching. Monitoring their usage is a necessary step, but it needs to be done in tandem with teaching appropriate online behavior.

Here are some proactive approaches to help monitor your child’s social media use:

  • Ask to see the apps on your child’s phone, open them and look through their profiles, items they have posted, etc.
  • Check the app’s age restrictions. Many social media apps are for teens 13 years or older; others 17 and older. If you find your child using one of these apps and you disapprove, notify the app or web master to cancel their account.
  • Set up profiles in these apps and link yourself to their profiles.
  • Use a social media monitoring service such as UKnowKids, SocialShield, or MyMobileWatchDog to help monitor your child’s online activity.
  • Use parental controls: Phones come with parental controls that help restrict access to websites and apps, and can restrict the installation of apps and in-app purchases.
  • Know your child’s passwords: Let your child know that you would never go into her phone and look without her permission unless you were concerned for her safety. If you try a password and it does not work, make sure your kids know the consequences.
  • Have honest conversations about privacy. Be clear that you respect their concerns for privacy and explain your desire for safety. Finding a balance is not easy. Explain that your goal is to protect them, not punish or stifle them.
  • Please keep in mind that this issue should be a continuing conversation, not a one-time chat.  For some teens, placing restrictions may result in them pushing boundaries, such as finding other ways around the limitations. Be firm but also continue to talk about the issue and explaining your goal is to keep them safe, not to make their lives difficult.

Here are some suggestions for teaching appropriate online behavior:  

  • Online communication is not the same as face-to-face communication. Explain that because people cannot see our body language nor hear the tone of our voice, what we write can easily be taken the wrong way. Think twice before posting something. Consider  how they might respond to a similarly-worded post.
  • Establish a set of online “rules” together. Some examples could include: Respect others. No speaking negatively to someone or about someone. Treat others how you want to be treated. Check in to make sure they are following these rules.
  • Explain the consequences of online behavior. Anything on the internet can be shared at any time. Would they want their grandmother reading what they are putting out there? Do they understand that potential colleges and employers look at social media? Help them understand that nothing is ever “deleted”.
  • Explain cyberbullying. Some teens may not realize what they are witnessing is cyberbullying. Use these instances to teach them about the consequences. How would they feel if they were the victim? How would they handle it if this happened to them? Help them come up with an action plan for how they would deal with cyberbullying. Explain that you would like for part of their action plan to include bringing it to your attention. Because cyber bulling can be silent – taking place on a mobile device – it makes it difficult for parents to recognize the problem and help.

Teaching responsible online behaviors is a gradual process involving supervision, communication, and guidance. It can be challenging because apps quickly change and teens are quick to pick up on new technologies. Remember to be patient with both yourself and your child as this open line of communication may be new to the both of you.

There are many resources available out there to help you and your child navigate this process. On our own websites:  GIRLSGUIDETOENDBULLYING.ORG and BOYSGUIDETOENDBULLYING.ORG.  Included is a parent manual as well as a cyberbullying module for teens. Other helpful websites include medialiteracy.commediasmarts.ca, and wiredsafety.org.  

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Ryan Adams, PhD

About the Author: Ryan Adams, PhD

Ryan Adams, PhD, is a professor of pediatrics in the division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. His research focuses on adolescents, peer victimization, bullying and depressive symptoms.

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