Staying in touch with family and friends via texting, video-chatting, and gaming has been a crucial part of sheltering in place for many families. It is one of the only ways we can feel truly connected to one another, while staying a safe distance from one another. But, as with all technology, we must stay vigilant and ensure that our kids and teens are staying safe online. As parents and caregivers, it is our job to keep tabs on who they are talking to and what the conversations are about and whether they stay appropriate and nonthreatening. With a little bit of monitoring, some necessary conversations with your kids, and keeping up with privacy settings, it is possible to help kids learn how to protect themselves from potential risks that come with online interactions.
Common Sense Media came up with a break down of the conversation you should have with your kids and teens about online chats:
- Use privacy settings. Your kid should make their online accounts private and enable all available restrictions that prevent total strangers from contacting them. Tell them not to respond to any contacts they don’t recognize—even if it looks friendly.
- Recognize red-flag feelings. Sexting, cyberbullying, harassment—it can all crop up when kids chat. Encourage your kid to trust their gut if something makes them feel uncomfortable—and block and report anything inappropriate. Also, never move a chat off the original platform, with a few exceptions.
- Protect your well-being. If it’s not fun, what’s the point? While kids love connecting to friends online, too much of a good thing could have negative consequences. Help them develop the self-awareness it takes to shut down devices when that happens.
Project B3 knows these conversations are so important to have with your kids and teens. It is also crucial to keep having them…as many times as it takes for the young person in your life to understand that they are in control of who they talk to online and how they communicate.Common Sense Media also broke down what to look for when you’re checking in on your child’s online chats and communication:Basic Phone Texting/Group Chats
–Who kids are talking to. Texting is mostly limited to people kids know in real life, but anyone with your kid’s number can call, text, and even video-chat with them.
–What a spot check reveals. A lot (unless kids delete their call logs). Phones log every call and text and may add the sender to your kid’s contact list automatically.
–What to watch out for. Group texting is huge with kids who have their own devices. It also opens them up to being contactable by anyone on the chain—and some people may be strangers. Contacts can be hidden and texts can be deleted, so looking at your kid’s phone may not show you everyone they’re talking to. Also, watch out for spam bots—texts that look like they’re from real people but are actually ads; if kids don’t recognize the number, they shouldn’t respond.
–Useful settings. iPhones allow you to manage kids’ contacts (go to Settings/Screen Time/Communication Limits). Both iPhones and Android phones allow you to restrict third-party apps from automatically adding all of your contacts, which helps kids keep their circle smaller.
Social Media Platforms
–Who kids are talking to. Kids usually chat or send pics back and forth with only friends, as well as friends of friends, but they can pretty much chat with anyone they want. For example, on Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, unless kids enable privacy settings to prevent contact with strangers, they can direct-message (DM) anyone who follows them and anyone they follow. The platforms also make it super easy to extend your network by recommending new accounts to follow, allowing you to sync all your social media contacts, and offering QR codes that let you add people with your camera.
–What a spot check reveals. You should be able to see all of your kids’ contacts from their account profile page. On Instagram and TikTok, you can read chats by tapping on a contact name and viewing the history. You can also follow your kids on those platforms to see what they post publicly. But Snapchat automatically deletes chats and public posts (stories) after they’re viewed.
–What to watch out for. Cyberbullying, drama, and time spent are all hazards of social media chatting. Unwanted contact, such as predatory behavior or inappropriate requests, is a risk—and it can come from strangers or kids they know.
–Useful settings. Most platforms offer privacy settings that allow kids to keep their accounts private, prevent contact from strangers, and limit comments. Some apps go further: Instagram offers an array of settings for kids to manage their circle of friends, and TikTok offers a small suite of parental controls, including the ability to disable direct messaging.
–Who kids are talking to. Kids play with friends they know in real life, but competing against new people is a huge part of the fun. So most gamers have lots of casual online pals they’ve made just from playing certain games or playing on a certain platform, such as Steam or Roblox.
–What a spot check reveals. It depends. In most games, you can see a list of your kids’ contacts, and you might be able to read your kids’ chats and private message history. But some game chat is done by voice—so you might be able to only hear what your kid is saying when they’re gaming, which is possible if you keep their console or computer in a family room instead of a bedroom.
–What to watch out for. Game chat—whether voice, video, or written—can run the gamut from edgy (with really graphic language) to cruel (including hate speech and homophobic slurs) to kind (since gamers can forge friendships through gaming). Game chat can be totally off topic, too. Be aware that not all game chat occurs on the platform kids play on. Some gamers prefer to use the chat app Discord to talk with their teammates, so you’ll want to find out whether your kid uses it (it has the same visibility as other social media).
–Useful settings. Games usually offer privacy settings that allow players to keep a tightly curated list of contacts. You’ll want to go through the game settings to enable the protections you’re comfortable with, from limiting all contact to just friends to moderated chat, which is available on some platforms.
Project B3 thinks that with the Safer at Home orders still in place, now is a great time to check in with your kids and teens about who and how they are communicating online. All it takes is an engaging conversation, a spot check, a refresh on privacy settings and reminding kids that they are in control of their online presence and communication.