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How can you keep kids safe online, in social media?

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

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 free for the whole family at During the contract process, parents go over all the rules and restrictions for good behavior online.

  • Know what social media accounts your children are using and monitor them. One of the big rules is that kids can have only 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.

  • Discuss the appropriate use of screens with your children. Heitner offers this list of concerns to talk about with children:

  • Do they know people they are playing online games with? If not, parents might want to set up a private server in games such as Mindcraft to invite only people they know in real life.
  • Are they involved in group texts? Remind them that everyone on those texts sees them and gossip can be painful.
  • Are friends sharing texts about other friends with other friends? Remind them not to engage in that behavior and call it out when they see it.
  • 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 for what permissions they will need and how they can pay for online purchases?
  • What behavior will cause them to lose their phone, tablet or computer?
  • Make sure they know it’s OK not to 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 that they don’t understand or could be overwhelming.
  • 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?

Be a role model for 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 dialogue 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 and the types of media, and make sure that the use of media does not take the place of sleeping, exercise or 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 it’s valuable to be in relationship,” Brooks says.


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