How to keep kids safe online, on social media

Parents probably were horrified at the news of Cody Wilson, designer of the 3-D printed gun, being accused and arrested for sexual assault after meeting a 16-year-old girl online.

What can parents do to make sure their children don’t become targets on social media or websites?

In the Raising Austin column, we’ve featured many experts in parenting or internet safety. Here are their tips:

Create a digital contract with your kids. You can get one for free for the whole family at netnanny.com. During that contract process parents would go over all the rules and restrictions for what is good behavior online.

Are your kids always on their phone? Create some phone-free zones. Bryan Thomas/The New York Times 2015

Know what social media accounts your children are using and monitor them. One of those big rules is that kids can only have accounts that parents know about. “About 60 percent are unaware of the accounts teens have created,” says Toni Schmidt, the social media manager for Net Nanny.

Don’t rely on monitoring software to do your job for you. “The more walls we build, the more we are just creating little hackers who are just trying to get around the fence,” says Devorah Heitner, founder of the website Raising Digital Natives and the book “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World.” Instead, be curious, engage in conversation about their online and social media use.

Devorah Heitner wrote “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World.”

Mentor your children on the appropriate use of screens. Heitner offers this list of questions to ask your children:

  • Do they know people they are playing online games with? If not, you might want to set up a private server in games like Mindcraft to only invite real people they know.
  • Are they involved in group texts? Remind them that everyone is on those texts and can get hurt.
  • Are friends sharing texts with other friends about other friends? Remind them to not engage in that behavior and call it out when they see them.
  • Are they looking for validation based on the number of likes and comments on posts?
  • What will happen if they lose their phone, tablet or computer? How will they reimburse you?
  • Do they understand that digital money is real money? Do you have a plan on what permission they will need and how they can pay for their online purchases?
  • What will cause them to lose their phone, tablet or computer?
  • Make sure they know it’s OK to not respond to texts and social media posts right away. They don’t need to be connected all the time.
  • Invite them to ask you when they have a question. Google is wonderful, but it might provide information they might not understand or might be overwhelming to them.
  • Talk through different situations: What will you do if you see something inappropriate on your phone? What will you do if you feel a friend is not behaving well online? What will you do if a friend doesn’t understand that you can’t respond right away?

Psychologist Mike Brooks is the director of the of the Apa Center,

Be a role model of phone and computer use. Austin psychologists Mike Brooks and Jon Lasser wrote “Tech Generation: Raising Balanced Kids in a Hyper-Connected World.” Kids often complain as much about their parents’ use of technology as parents complain about their kids’. Think of it like healthy eating, Brooks says. We can’t force them to eat healthier foods, but if we model eating healthfully, they might do it.

Set limits. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ media use policy recommends these guidelines:

  • Children younger than 18 months of age: Avoid the use of any screen media except video chatting (with grandparents, for example).
  • Children ages 18 months to 24 months: Introduce high-quality programs or apps, but do it with your children to create a dialog about what they are seeing and how it relates to the world around them.
  • Children ages 2 to 5 years: Limit screen time to one hour a day of high-quality programs that you view with your children.
  • Children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on time spent using media, the types of media and make sure that the use of media does not take the place of sleeping, exercise and other healthy behaviors.

Build up the parent-child relationship to prevent conflict and dangerous online use. Brooks and Lasser’s No. 1 recommendation is for parents to spend more time with their kids without technology. “The more time we spend with kids in that capacity, it feeds that part of their soul that is going to be happy, healthy, and they will have that in them that is it’s valuable to be in relationship,” Brooks says.

Dr. Leonard Sax wrote “Girls on the Edge” and “Boys Adrift.”

Have family meals at home and make that a top priority. “You have to communicate that our time together as a parent and child is more important than anything else,” says family physician, psychologist and author Leondard Sax, who wrote “The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt our Kids when We Treat them Like Grown-Ups.”

Take screens out of the bedroom. This includes cellphones, computers, TVs, video games. Kids are chronically sleep deprived, which leads to poor behavior and can even be the reason why kids are getting mental health diagnoses, Sax says.

Put screens in public places and limit how they are used. Even though, they might still be sneaking and text to their friends PWOMS (Parent Watching Over Shoulder) or some other acronym, they are less likely to be doing something unsafe if you could be walking by.

Remind them that what they post online stays forever. Those middle-school photos will follow them to their first job interview. Remind them of the permanent legal consequences of sending or receiving photos that could be considered child pornography. Kids can be charged with distributing child pornography even if they didn’t take the photo. And if a parent shows it to another parent or a teacher or principal, they’ve just distributed child pornography, says Bob Lotter, creator of My Mobile Watchdog, a monitoring app. They can only show it to law enforcement, Lotter says.

Make sure kids engage with real people they know. Their online friends can quickly become more important than the friends they see in person.

Determine if they are really ready to have a cellphone. An Austin group, launched the nationwide movement Wait Until 8th to encourage parents to take a pledge to not give their kids a smartphone before eighth grade.

The National Consumers League says parents should ask these questions when shopping for a phone for their child, specifically in those tween years:

  • Why does your child need a cellphone?
  • Will the phone be used primarily to stay in touch with parents or for emergency use? Or will your child be using the phone for entertainment or to communicate with friends?
  • How much do you want to spend per month on service?
  • How much do you want to spend on the initial purchase of the phone itself?
  • Is your tween mature enough to keep her minutes, texting and data use within plan limits?
  • Is your tween mature enough to use the phone responsibly and avoid viewing or sending inappropriate content?
  • What is your tween’s school’s policy on cellphones in school?
  • Does your tween have a habit of losing things, or can he handle the responsibility of caring for a phone?

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