If you have children, grandchildren or other kids in your life, you might be rightfully concerned about their use of social media, which
could lead to contact with problematic people, cyberbullying, inappropriate content or spending too much time using services and apps like Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat or Discord.
I’ve given this a lot of thought, having worked on internet safety issues since nearly a decade before the advent of social media. In 1994, I wrote Child Safety on the Information Highway, for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. A couple of years later I founded SafeKids.com and, in 2004, I co-founded ConnectSafely.org, where I still serve as CEO. I also helped raise two digital natives who are now adults.
My work has included both warning parents and kids about potential dangers and reassuring parents and policymakers that the internet isn’t as dangerous as some people say it is. Yes, I do worry about children being harmed, but it’s important to put risks into perspective and realize that most kids are doing pretty well, even though there are some who have serious problems. A one-size-fits-all approach to internet safety doesn’t work. Just as with public health, everyone needs to take some precautions, but some people are more vulnerable than others. That’s why it’s important for parents to be in close contact with their kids to better understand how they are using technology, what risks they are taking and what type of support or supervision they need. There are children who need very close supervision, possibly with the use of filtering or monitoring tools, but that’s definitely not the case for all youth. And, as kids mature, the level of supervision changes, typically toward loosening up as they enter their mid- to late teens. For more advice on parental controls, visit connectsafely.org/controls.
The best filters
During the nearly three decades that I’ve been working on online child safety, I’ve had a chance to try out numerous tools designed to help parents protect their kids, including filters that block inappropriate content, monitoring programs that report what kids are doing and controls that limit how much time a child can spend online or using a particular app. Some of these tools are quite good, but, to restate something I first said at a tech industry event in 1998, “The best tool is not the one that runs on a device, but the one that runs in the CPU between a child’s ears.” That’s the filter that will last a lifetime and adapt itself over time.
In other words, while filtering and monitoring tools have their place, they’re no substitute for helping children develop critical thinking and media literacy skills that empower them to make good decisions. And the skills they develop online can apply offline as well. Today it may be learning how to avoid a cyberbully or moderate the amount of time they spend on Instagram but tomorrow it may be knowing how to behave on a date, in a car, around alcohol and drugs or when making decisions about things like spending money or even who to vote for..
Whether or not you use parental management tools, you should still have regular conversations with your child about how they use technology. The don’t have to be long or formal — you can bring it up over dinner or in the car — and they should never be lectures or inquisitions. But you can ask your kids about how they are using connected technology, what apps they love and why they use them and how they’re able to protect their privacy, safety and security. You might be surprised by their answers. A lot of kids, especially teens, are more savvy then adults give them credit for. I’ve spoken at back to school nights where some of the kids knew more about online safety than most of the adults.
Tools you can use
There are parental management tools built-into iOS, Android, Windows and Macintosh as well as numerous third-party filters and monitoring apps like Barck, Norton Family and Qustodio. And there are also tools from the very social media companies that make the apps your kids use.
In June, Meta released parental supervision tools for Instagram, which require opt-in from both teens and parents. They can be used to set a time limit for how long their teen can use Instagram each day, set scheduled breaks, see how much time their teen is spending on Instagram, what accounts they’re following, and who follows them.
And, this week, Snapchat launched its Family Center tool that gives parents insight into how they’re using the popular chat app and who they’re interacting with. Like Instagram, it requires the teen to opt-in.
Smartly, Instagram’s supervision tool and Snap’s Family Center don’t show parents every message a teen sends or receives. In that sense, they’re not parental control tools but a way for parents and teens to work together to help protect and empower teens.
In an interview, Snapchat’s director of platform policy and social impact Nona Farahnik Yadegar explained, “Snapchat is trying to bring parenting behaviors that are analogous to the real world to the digital world.” She added, “If your teen is playing video games in the basements with friends, you know who’s down there, or if you drop them off at a friend’s house, you know who they’re hanging out with but you’re not in the room listening to the conversation.”
Such a policy not only respects the teen’s privacy but also spares the parent from “too much information,” and as Yadegar said, it is the way it almost always works in the offline world. When I was a teen, my parents knew who my friends were, but they didn’t make me wear a wire so they could record everything I said and heard.
Mostly for young teens
Realistically, I don’t expect many 17-year-olds to be enthusiastic about their parents using these types of parental supervision tools, but they can be very useful tool for families with younger teens, especially during their early use of social media. It would be very reasonable for a parent to require their teen to opt-in to the Family Center as a condition for them being able to use Snapchat. Over time, I suspect some families may decide to stop using it, but it’s a great tool for young teens and may actually be welcomed by some older teens who want their parents to help them more safely use the service.
You’ll find parent guides and other safety resources for Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, Discourse and other apps at ConnectSafely.org.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit internet safety organization that receives financial support from some of the companies mentioned in this article.