It’s a digital dilemma plaguing parents. Should you be following your kids on social media? We consulted with some experts and they all agree– yes, absolutely! The Pew Research Center surveyed parents about this and found the majority are already monitoring their kid’s online activity in some way. So how can parents keep their kids safe online and encourage good digital behavior without being too intrusive?
We asked four experts for their best tips on how to keep a watchful eye in today’s digital parenting age.
1. You don’t need to be your child’s social media friend but you do need to follow them
Carly Campbell, Mommy on Purpose
Parents need to follow their kids on social media – and if, as a parent, you don’t understand why… then you need to educate yourself on the dangers of social media.
Have an honest conversation with your child about why you’re following them. Let them know it’s because you don’t trust other people – not because you don’t trust them. And if they seem hesitant, promise them that you will not engage with their posts. You don’t need to be your child’s social media friend – you need to be your child’s parent. You can assure them that you won’t be embarrassing them in any way publicly, ever (and then keep that promise). You will be able to see what they’re posting and have private (in-person) conversations about their posts, and the posts that they engage with.
If your child is a teen, and friending mom or dad embarrasses them to no end, you could consider going as far as creating a fake social account to follow them – and telling your child about it so they know who this person is.
If, after promising you won’t engage or embarrass your child, they are still against you following them or they block you, it’s not unreasonable to think that they are already posting things they know you wouldn’t be happy with.
2. In addition to following their kids on social media, parents need to be educated on how each platform works and how their children use it
Andrew Selepak, PhD, University of Florida
For all the positives of social media, there are a lot of negatives as well such as cyberbullying which impacts younger people much more than adults. The increase in cyberbullying among young people has also led to a rise in childhood depression, eating disorders, and even suicide. Parents need to follow their kids on social media to know what they are posting and who they are interacting with. But simply following your kids on social media is not enough.
Although following your child on social media means at a minimum that a parent has a social media account to follow their child on Instagram or Facebook, but it doesn’t mean the parent knows how to use the accounts. Parents need to know social media better than their children so they know how their child uses it and how others can contact them or engage with them. Simply following your child on Instagram doesn’t mean you know what they are doing. Instead, all a parent is doing is giving their child a reason to look for other ways to interact with friends in less visible ways, and these less visible ways are often where more cyberbullying is done.
Parents need to have digital literacy to know how the web works and how to protect their child. Parents need to not only follow their children on social media, and know how to use the platforms, they should also make sure they have the passwords to any accounts their children use so they can see the direct messages their children are sending and receiving. While public cyberbullying is a problem, so is private cyberbullying, and only by having their child’s password to their account can they be sure they are not cyberbullying someone or being cyberbullied. And even if a parent does have their child’s password, their child could still create additional accounts beyond the watchful eye of their parents. This is why it is important for parents to know how the platforms work and be on the lookout for additional hidden accounts and maybe even monitor their child’s online activity.
Additionally, parents may even want to invest in software to monitor their child’s online activities across platforms, the internet, and even their texts. While parents can’t protect their child from everything, there are things they can do to protect them as much as possible. The first step is to recognize that just as you would keep your child from watching R-movies, you also need to keep them away from disturbing content on the web.
3. Have meaningful discussions that set ground rules and expectations before following your kids on social media
Dr. Chester Goad, university administrator and former K12 principal and teacher
Parents should follow young adolescents on social media and use discretion following older students after having a meaningful discussion that sets ground rules and expectations. Younger children may benefit from occasional positive feedback and encouragement from a parent online, but in general outside of holidays and special circumstances, parents should avoid or limit posting on their kids’ social media.
No matter the age, pay attention to posts and keep a watchful eye out for worrisome contradictions to real life. Extreme differences between the emotions and expressions included in social media posts and the emotions and expressions witnessed at home are red flags. Look for photoshopped selfies and other evidence of unrealistic portrayals of life. Have a conversation about the differences in social media and the big picture of everyday life, discuss authenticity and body image, and of course seek assistance from professionals if you notice signs of depression.
4. Giving your kids some space on social media is important or else they will start to hide their activity or create secret profiles
Myasia Burns, M.A., Social Media & PR Manager at Red Ventures
Should parents follow their kids? Absolutely. Where parents need to draw the line, though, is micromanaging their children’s online presence. Joining conversations you are not tagged in, liking every photo they and their friends post, or bringing up their online activity in every conversation is a reminder that you are “always watching” and an intrusion on their online identity. Let them breathe.
- Recognize that who they are on Instagram may be different from Facebook – make sure that you know about every single social media profile they have (even second/fake Instagram accounts).
- Check in daily – this doesn’t mean only looking at their profile, but understanding what’s trending. Is there a dangerous new challenge sweeping the internet? Has it reached your child’s middle school yet? These are things you should know about. Out-of-the-box concept from a social media manager: consider using tools like Sprout Social or Hootsuite to keep yourself in the know.
- Flag things of genuine concern – is your child using language online that is harmful to themselves or others? Are they bullying someone? These are things to worry about and should be addressed directly with your child. If they’re simply just being a little more provocative than you’re used to (but ultimately not a danger to anyone), I’d recommend proceeding with caution, i.e., perhaps not mentioning it instantly. Again, you don’t want to hover too much over them. Why not? Your child can and will find ways to revoke your access to their digital persona, which is in direct conflict of what you want. Private (or worse, secret) profiles can be the source of the darkest content on the internet. Encourage a healthy relationship by allowing them their space to explore who they want to be and redirect them only when absolutely necessary.
The bottom line is to be present but not overbearing as a parent.
Parents should make sure to stay personally connected to their kids about their online activity. They shouldn’t only rely on monitoring software. Instead, they should create a digital safety net. When parents keep the lines of communication open, they are likely to have a more positive influence in helping to shape their child’s digital footprint– today and for years to come.