A family consisting of a dad, a mom and two children, a boy and a girl. The little girl is sitting on her dad's lap on the left side of the phot. The little boy is sitting on his mom's lap on the right side of the phot. The family is all seated on a gray couch. There is a laptop resting on the dad's knee.

A family all looking at a laptop while sitting on a couch.

Social media is a part of kids’ lives from a young age. The younger generations are raised with a social media presence, sharing videos, creating content, making friends in online spaces. It’s where they find connection with friends, share experiences, learn and gather information.

Not only does social media connect young people who might feel alone or isolated, it can also create accessibility for those with visual or hearing disabilities. Online spaces and social media are places for kids seeking support on issues that some communities find taboo, such as anxiety, depression, sexuality, gender expression or domestic violence.

Consider your child’s age and ability to determine how you’ll talk to them about social media safety.

Teaching preschoolers about online safety

Even though kids this age aren’t old enough to text with their friends or post on social media, or game, they do see parents scrolling and using technology all the time. That endless scrolling, taking pictures and consumption of tech they notice.

You can model healthy tech habits at this age and communication skills through demonstrating how you use the devices and manage your screen time.

Teaching kids ages 5-8 about online safety

You don’t want to scare your kids away from talking to you about their online activities. At this age, think about the content and risks/types of people they don’t know or who they may come in contact with online.

Let’s discuss the three C’s:

Contact Risks: These risks include children encountering adults posing as children. An example of this, a child being persuaded to share personal information with strangers, or provide contact details by clicking on pop-up messages, or meeting someone in person they’ve met online.

Conduct Risks: These risks might include a child acting in ways that impact others or being the victim of this behavior. For example, a child destroying a game a friend or sibling created.

Another risk is a child accidentally making in-app purchases.

Contract Risks: These risks include children signing up for contracts, terms of service or condition that they’re not aware of or don’t understand. Children can click buttons that allow a business to send them marketing materials or to collect personal or family data. Children also might use a toy, app, or device with weak internet security; this leaves them vulnerable to identity theft or fraud.

Setting up rules for what kids can do online to help you all navigate the internet together helps immensely. Create a family media plan, together. Stress the importance of keeping information private, such as their full name, location and details from people they’ve not met in real life.

You might also consider establishing a waiting period for your kids for any new apps or games your child wants to download. This way you have time to research and decide if it’s appropriate for your child or not.

Teaching tweens about online safety

When your kid reaches their tween years, you’ve already had discussions about online content, contact, conduct, and contract. You’ll keep building off these conversations as they encounter more material that is sexually explicit, violent, or harmful. Discuss with your kids about content restrictions and parental controls and engage safe search in all your browsers.

Texting is common at this age and often kids will have their first phone, whether a shared family device or their own. It’s important to talk through potential scenarios they might encounter and how they should handle them. Get them thinking critically about texting with these questions as a guideline:

What do you do if you’re in a group text and someone wants to start a group text without you?

What will you do if someone says something mean or bullies you?

What if someone says something mean about a teacher or a friend?

What could you say to your friend who is texting too much and you are overwhelmed?

Consider allowing your kids to text before they jump into social media apps. Texting helps them develop better communication skills in a more safely monitored environment (nothing is perfect). It gets them comfortable before they join social media such as Snapchat, TikTok or Instagram that are far more public.

Put ground rules in place before they are needed, and kids get that first phone or device. This way you’ll have instilled good communication and safety practices for when they do join social media. It’s okay to have rules around their devices and social media, and talking about it beforehand helps.

Teaching teens about online safety

Once your kids reach their teenage years, they’re handling an immense amount of communication with online friends. They communicate directly without their parents involved.

It’s important to check in with your teens about who they’re in communication with and how the conversations are going. Discussing with them their boundaries and whether they feel confident asserting those boundaries is essential. For example, if someone asks them for a nude photo will they say no? If someone sends them a photo, what will they do and do they understand they should report it?

At this age, you need to address your teen’s emotional safety and mental health. Talk to your teens about not sharing their location, even with friends they think they can trust. Discuss how the different apps and their algorithms provide content and from which sources they gather their information.

For example, what apps or sites do they use to gather their fitness and health information? Are they surfing to Reddit and Quora or checking on a particular fitness app? You need to know where your teens form their opinions and whether misinformation could be impacting their views of their body, self, and life.

Who is your teen communicating with online and where are they meeting these people? If your teen is on Discord, Kik or similar apps, they might be meeting adults or peers who are harmful. Ensure you’re able to discuss who they’re chatting with and have proper parental controls and safety measures in place with your teen if something happens. Teens won’t necessarily tell you everyone they chat to, but keeping lines of communication open and having consensual device monitoring for your teen might be an option.

Talk to them about social media and how it makes them feel. Start with the positive and open-ended questions. You remember being lectured by your own parents back in the day, this is not that. No one likes being lectured. 😊

What do you do instead? Ask open-ended questions. Consider some of the following:

What do you like to spend time doing on social media?

How do you feel when you use Instagram, Tiktok, Snapchat?

Have you tried to cut down your social media?

How has social media affected your friends’ mental health?

What do you feel adults are missing about teens’ social media use?

Has social media affected your friends’ mental health

This part might be harder for some, but practice active listening. Validate their feelings and don’t dismiss their concerns.

Final Thoughts

The most important thing to remember is you have conversations with your kids and teens. Talk to them about safe and age-appropriate texting and social media use. Remind them to never share personal information with other people, learn together about using safety features on phones and apps, and talk about boundaries, safe searching and parental controls, with their consent.

If you’d like more in-depth knowledge and learning about online safety, sexting, sextortion, account & device security, please join our Privacy Fundamentals for Families class.

The guidance included in this article does not constitute legal advice and is for educational purposes only.

Sources: Psychology Today, NSPCC