Share safely

How to keep kids safe and private online

A good rule of thumb for social media is once parents find out about a certain website or app, kids are already moving on to the next platform.

It’s an idea that has basis in research—a Pew Research project found that while the vast majority of teens still use Facebook, growing numbers are using other services like Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr. Add in the growing popularity of self-deleting or “anonymous” apps, and it’s increasingly difficult for parents to get a handle on the online behavior of their children.

And the security issues associated with oversharing and other risky online behavior are becoming more visible after recent major security leaks, including the celebrity photo leaks scandal that saw hackers break into hundreds of Apple accounts, and more recently the release of hundreds of thousands of private images from Snapchat.

But the growth in social media and changing ways that teenagers use the internet doesn’t mean that parents should give up, says Reno-based sales consultant and social media expert Alice Heiman—rather, following a few common-sense guidelines and setting rules for internet use can help minimize any problems that can come from letting children online.

Know What You're Getting Into

A good first step is to familiarize oneself with what apps and online sites kids are using. Kids today are on a lot more social networks than just Facebook, and though it's not necessary to get an account on every site listed, it's important to understand how they work and what kind of privacy and access settings parents can manage.

Snapchat: With around 30 million active users, Snapchat lets users send “self-destructing” photos and videos to one another, as well as a rudimentary texting feature. The app has some basic privacy features limiting who can see your “snaps,” and is designed to alert users if someone takes a screenshot—though a number of third-party apps let users discreetly save photos.

Whisper/Secret: Although slightly different, both Secret and Whisper allow users to anonymously post confessions, thoughts or any other text on an image background, giving other anonymous users a chance to like or comment on the pictures. Neither app has significant privacy features due to the anonymous nature, but concerns have been raised about keeping users and data anonymous.

Twitter: Twitter has around 271 million users throughout the world who use the service to send and read 140-character messages ranging from the mundane to breaking news. Compared to other sites, Twitter has robust privacy settings, including the ability to make accounts private and make it harder to find a person’s account. More than 26 percent of all teens have a Twitter account, according to Pew research.

Instagram: This photo and video sharing app has more than 150 million users and was bought by Facebook for more than $1 billion in 2012. Like Facebook, Instagram has solid privacy options including the ability to privatize an account.

Tumblr: Tumblr is a micro-blogging site, similar to Facebook but with more options for customization and changes to one’s blog on the platform. The site, which is owned by Yahoo!, has more than 205 million blogs and over 78 million posts created daily.

Kik/WhatsApp: Both companies are smartphone apps designed to replace traditional text messaging (SMS) with messages sent through Wifi or a data plan.

Setting ground rules

No matter the site, Heiman says it's critical for parents to not only know what social sites their children are using, but also what kind of privacy settings can be managed. It's also important to make sure your child follows site rules. Facebook and Instagram require users to be at least 13 years old before having an account.

And having a private account isn’t an end-all to privacy concerns—it’s critical for children to know who they allow to access their accounts or connect online. To that end, it can also be a good idea to require children to share their passwords with their parents, and to check up on their accounts on a regular basis to make sure that privacy settings are the same and to make sure they’re not messaging strangers.

Although it’s easy to delete compromising posts or pictures, in general, it’s safe to assume that posting online can be traced or linked back to whoever posted it. Anyone can take a screenshot, and many social media companies keep images and data stored even after a user deletes them.

“What you post on social media, everyone can see, even though you think they can’t,” Heiman said.

Older teenagers who might be submitting applications for jobs or colleges need to be especially careful about what they put on social media, Heiman said. She said she recently turned away an intern after seeing his or her Facebook profile and finding inappropriate content.

Heiman said teaching good internet behavior, like not disparaging others or posting inappropriate pictures, is a new responsibility for parents.

“You teach your kids how to sit at a table and use a knife and spoon and put a napkin on their lap,” she said. “You now are responsible as a parent to teach them the etiquette of the internet.”

In essence, all of these recommendations boil down to the importance of having a conversation between child and parent about the responsibilities of having social media accounts and an online presence. Even though younger generations might be more digitally native than their parents, Heiman said it is still important to set guidelines and consequences for online behavior.

Not all social media use is risky—Heiman recommends that high school and college students create a profile on LinkedIn, a social networking site based more on professional connections.

“It is the way they will get a job in the future,” she said. “It’s already the way people get jobs.”


Social media use isn't the only area of technology where parents should be concerned about their child's behavior. Access to a smartphone, tablet, laptop or any other electronic device that connects to the internet opens up a number of security and other risks that are important for parents to be aware of.

Chief among these concerns is the recent rise of in-app purchases. Many times, game publishers will release smartphone games or apps for free, but with the option to purchase game content for real-world money within the app. It’s enough of a problem that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has brought suit against mobile store developers like Apple and Amazon, requiring them to refund tens of millions of dollars.

Although a lot of in-app purchases require entering a password for any purchase, it’s still a good idea to double check what apps your kids may have downloaded, and be sure that any purchases require a password first.

Even though many new devices are based around the idea of mobility, like smartphones or tablets, it can still be a good idea to set limits on how much screen time your child gets. Keeping communal electronic equipment, like a family desktop computer, in a common area can also keep children away from risky or inappropriate websites.

Also, a number of internet service providers can help with parental controls, doing everything from limiting what sites can be visited to cutting off internet access during certain hours.

In general, there’s no putting the toothpaste back in the tube when it comes to social media.

“I think it’s important for parents to understand that even though they might not be on social media, it is a way of life, and that their kids are going to do it,” she said.