June is Internet Safety Month – How Safe are Your Kids on Social Media?

Betcha didn’t know it, but June is Internet Safety Month.

You probably missed that section in the greeting card store because of the other much more anticipated June-related happening – Summer vacation! Now you might not be jumping for joy at the mere mention of the word “vacation” but every kid in America has been awaiting this time since September 8th of last year. Makes sense too – summer vacation means family trips, less responsibilities, more time to chill – and much more time to use social media uninterrupted by, ya know, annoying schoolwork, parents and teachers.

When you think about it, the people who dreamed up this Internet Safety Month thingy were actually on to something. See there is no greater recipe for disaster than a bored kid who’s got a device and too much time to kill (none that we can think of, anyway). As we all know, social media can be a great tool if used properly and responsibly, or it it can be incredibly damaging. The reality is that there are a lot of dangers out there that most kids are blissfully unaware of them. It’s up to parents to help them learn to navigate the murky waters of social media properly. (And even though Facebook has an official policy that kids under 13 cannot create profiles, let’s get real, there are plenty of kids under 13 on Facebook and lots of other social media networks all the time.)

Here are some critical social media safety issues to discuss with your kids:

Cyberbullying

For as long as there have been kids, there have been bullies, those mean kids who harass, threaten, intimidate, and even hurt others, just because they can. And whereas once upon a more idyllic time, a parent might have told their child to just get up and walk away, social media has taken cyberbullying to frightening new levels. Cruel words once hurled across the school playground or lunchroom can now go viral in a matter of moments. And if you think it’s less painful in the digital world, remember that kids today by and large interact with their friends and peers much more so via their devices and social media than they do face to face. Cyberbullying is an extension of real life bullying, rather than an all out replacement. This means that the poor victims never really get a break from their torture, following them from school to their computer at home.

There are signs to watch out for if you think your child is being bullied on social media – they may be apprehensive about or downright refuse to go to school (or summer camp as the case may be), they might seem nervous or on edge, or secretive about their digital life. They might try to shun digital devices or social media or seem withdrawn. Of course, these can be signs of lots of things when dealing with kids and teenagers, but if cyberbullying is indeed the culprit, you can help stop it in its nasty little mean-girl sized tracks by blocking the bully using blocking features that exist on almost all social media platforms.

Social scammers/Creeps

If we were to tell you to head over to Facebook or Twitter and create a profile posing as a 19-year-old girl who loves windsurfing and her cats, how hard do you think it would be? Super complicated? Easy as pie? Give up yet? Okay we’ll tell you – it would be easy as pie to create a fake account. And guess what!? People do it all the time – Right now, there are anywhere between 65 -135 MILLION fake Facebook accounts. So it’s not inconceivable for some creep to set up accounts with the intention of scamming kids – or worse.

There are lots of ways creeps take advantage of kids (and adults too) using social media – but they all start out by sending friend requests. After the request has been accepted, the creep can use the information in the victim’s profile to steal their identity (kids are common targets for this kind of scam because they don’t have messy credit histories and won’t be applying for loans any time soon), to get money out of them, or to even lure them into very dangerous situations by meeting in real life.

Over-sharing

If you have ever made the mistake of telling your kid about the surprise party you were planning for grandma’s birthday, you know that most kids don’t understand when to keep their mouths shut. This isn’t because they are annoying blabbermouths, it’s because kids and teens have not yet fully developed the capacity to understand what’s appropriate to say and share and what isn’t – and this lack of understanding can cause big problems on social media.

TMI – too much info and its many dangers
Kids and teens need to know that people like the creeps above keep watch for people posting their location – then they can use this information to stalk them or to enter empty homes. Posting things like “Going to the Pavilion Mall now – Who’s coming?” or “We’re leaving on July 7th for two weeks in Disney! No one will be home, not even our dog” can be really dangerous. Just like that, everyone, including the aforementioned creeps, know where you’re headed and how long you’ll be away.

Social media creates jealousy
Not only does this put your family into danger, all this over sharing creates a lot of jealousy (and quite frankly, this affects, ahem, adults too, you know). On social media everyone wants to look like they have the perfect life, and accordingly, this is what they show people. Us humans, being the envious, and semi-dimwitted creatures that we are, buy what they show us on their profiles hook, line and sinker – and we assume that everybody but everybody has it better than we do. Jenny over there is going to Disney for two weeks. And she has a dog! Her life is perfect, mine is pathetic.

Not surprisingly, psychology and medical researchers all over the world have confirmed a new psychological condition called Facebook Depression, caused by comparing one’s own life to that of other other’s on Facebook.

Posting pictures
Another place where we run into the dangers of over-sharing is in regard to the pictures kids and teens post. There are two major concerns when it comes to posting pictures on social media. The first problem is that pictures contain metadata that can reveal where and when the picture was taken. This takes us back to the creep issue – you don’t want weirdos knowing where your kids play and hang out.

The second issue is that of older kids and teens posting potentially embarrassing pictures to their profiles. Sure, that picture with all the empty beer bottles seems funny now to your teen but what about when he or she applies to their first job or university? Pictures posted online can come back to haunt them later on, and they need to be aware of that reality.

Great, now what?

Now that you know about some of the biggest social media challenges out there, here comes the really complicated part – talking to your teen or kids about them. Luckily it’s not really all that complicated but it should be handled with tact and care. Here are some ideas of how to go about it:

  • Start by creating a safe and non judgmental space for your kids to talk and ask questions.
  • Respect the fact that they probably know more about social media than you do.
  • Ask them if they or their friends have ever experienced any uncomfortable or upsetting things on social media and how they dealt with it.
  • Together with your kid/teen, create a gameplan to deal with cyberbullies and upsetting online incidents.
  • Discuss with your kids/teens the benefits of safety features like parental controls – you don’t need to delve into the nitty gritties of everything they block but if you choose to employ them (a really good idea), tell them about it and let them know why you’re doing it and involve them in the process.
  • Keep the family computer in a central area of your home, where anyone can easily see what the person using the computer is doing.
  • Monitor your kid’s privacy settings on all their social networks. These settings change often according to the platform and you’ll want to make sure your kids are thoroughly covered.

Then, take a big paper and make a calendar that goes from the end of June through September 8th and hang it on the inside of the door to your bedroom. Keep a big Sharpie marker next to it and just keep crossing off each day and exhale. September 8th isn’t all that far away…

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