With more than three-quarters of children between 10 and 12 years old using at least one social media network, according a BBC survey, protecting kids online has to be top of our parenting agenda.
Let's kick off with two irrefutable facts: Firstly, the age limit of most social media sites is 13. Second: Your child will be chewing your ear off and engaging in blatant bribery in a bid to gain access to the holy kingdom of ‘social’ many years before that.
And the truth is only the very strongest parent will survive the onslaught, rising above the din of ‘It’s soooo unfair’ and the killer ‘But I’ll be left out'. The rest of us will eventually cave, telling ourselves that our child is far too sensible to get caught up in any of the horror stories you hear about.
Which brings us on to another fact, which is that anyone – absolutely anyone, adult, child, girl or boy – can fall foul of the unwritten code of conducting oneself online.
What we need to do is adopt healthy online habits, learn some expert knowledge (and pass it on), and keep our kids talking to us so that a conversation about their online life is never off limits.
Digital expert Tanya Goodin, founder of digital wellbeing movement Time To Log Off, says: ‘Think of it like food – you wouldn’t just let your kids gorge endlessly on anything they wanted. It’s the same with the internet and social media. There is a time and a place for screens, and our job is to help our children indulge wisely.”
INSTIL SOME SOCIAL SAVVINESS WITH THESE ESSENTIAL TIPS:
Know the limits
Whether they begging for WhatsApp, TikTok, Snapchat or one of the other social media sites, research the age limit for each and explain to your tween the reasons those limits exist. Get armed with the facts about each site and have clear explanations for why you don’t think it’s appropriate, or about the strict controls you’re choosing to put in place.
Before you make a decision, find out about the safety features that the most popular social media sites actually provide. This means doing your research. Check out each site at SafeInternet and the NSPCC’s Net Aware also gives you information on individual sites.
Talk it through
Don’t assume your child does (or doesn’t) know the basics of protecting themselves online. Instead, chat it through with them, asking if they know how to keep information private, how to report things that make them feel unhappy or uncomfortable and how to block someone on a social media site.
Explain that their behaviour online should be the same as how they behave in person, and if they wouldn’t say something to someone’s face, they shouldn’t post it online. Make sure they know they should always be careful about what they share and remind them that people chatting to them on a social media site may not be who they say they are. The NSPCC site, Share Aware, is a great starting point.
Meet them half way
With young children, think of social media as you would a cooker or oven, something they can gradually learn to use responsibly, with you showing them how. Explain how it works and how they need to be careful. Don’t just switch it on and leave them alone with it.
What about saying they can have access to a site, but putting it on your phone or iPad instead of theirs? Yes, it’s a royal pain in the backside when you have to hand your phone over, but at least you get to control their access and see exactly what they are posting.
Keep a low profile
If they do get the green light to go on a social media site, help them manage their profile. They should never use their own name, never give any details about their location, not post pictures that identify where they are or where they go to school, and not put up pictures showing themselves in their school uniform.
Also, go into their profile and check all the privacy settings are switched to private – and keep double checking that this remains the case.
It’s one thing telling them they can only be online for an hour a day, but a whole different thing enforcing it. This is where tech’s inbuilt tools are invaluable. On an iPhone for example, go to ‘settings’ then ‘screen time’ and set time limits for any apps your kids access. While you’re at it, set a few limits on your own phone for yourself too.
Check out restrictions you can put in through your internet browser as well. Other tech tips include Apple Family Sharing which allows you to set time limits for specific apps from your own device and limit the content kids have access to on their devices.
It’s not a bad idea to write down some family guidelines for using the internet and social media. As one of your rules, consider having a box or basket where everyone (yes, you too) puts their devices at certain times of the day. You might start with bedtime, then include meals, and go on to agree other times, like when you’re all doing something as a family together, such as watching a film.
Talk to others
One mum of an 11 year old says: “My daughter recently started secondary school and within a day was looped into the class WhatsApp group. It was only a week or two later, when I talked to other parents, that I realised there were plenty of girls who weren’t in the group, because their parents had stood firm on not having the app. I wish I’d known earlier.”
It’s common to feel like you’re the only parent taking a stand about social media. That’s unlikely to be the case. “There’ll definitely be others who want to set tighter boundaries like you,’ says Tanya. So get talking to your children’s friend’s parents and agree to together to stand firm. Then when your son or daughter says “But everyone else’s mum lets them”, he or she won’t have a leg to stand on.
Take an interest in their online life
You may prefer to stick pins in your eyes than spend a moment looking at your child’s TikTok feed (spoiler alert: lots of pouty lip synching and strangely literal dance moves) but showing an interest in their online life is essential for breaking down the barriers ‘Twixt’ them and us.
Tanya says: “The key is balance, time off screens balanced with time on screens, and trying to meet them in their world occasionally. I bet they would love to show you their favourite YouTube videos one evening. Why not ask?”
In return show them sites and apps that you like, and explain why you like them but also talk about how posts on sites like Facebook or Instagram can sometimes make you feel, explaining how the carefully curated posts are rarely a true picture of someone’s life.
Find more information from the NSPCC.
Mel Hunter is a freelance journalist specialising in parenting, mental health and consumer issues. She is also mum of two tweens, a daughter aged 12 and a son aged nine, who has additional needs.