The world of social media is always changing. Just when parents figured out the complexities of Facebook, their teens began abandoning the platform in favor of the next big thing—and as surely as new next big things will pop up, teens will continue gravitating towards them. From photo-sharing apps like Instagram to instant messaging services like WhatsApp, today's teens are sharing an overwhelming amount of information with more and more people—all at the tap of a button.
For parents just trying to keep up, here's an overview of the most popular and widely used social media networks, as well as a rundown of some of the risks associated with them and what to do about those risks.
It's important to note that any of these issues—oversharing, sexting, cyberbullying, and so on—can and do happen on any of these platforms. But certain social networks lend themselves more to certain dangers. For a more deeper look at these issues, check out our learning module on kids and social media.
The Platform: Facebook
Facebook is the largest and most popular social network, allowing users to connect with friends, post status updates, "check in" to various locations, send private messages, join common interest groups, upload photos, and identify themselves and others in those photos. Users can also share personal information, such as their birth date, hometown, and political or religious preferences. Facebook can be accessed via a web browser or a mobile app.
The Issue: Oversharing
"Checking in" and geotagging—identifying where the user is at the time a status or photo is posted—can reveal your teen's location at almost any time. Since people often use birthdays, anniversaries, or hometowns when creating passwords, having these details public can be risky, too. Finally, it might not look so good to potential colleges or employers if your teen is tagged in last Friday's wild party photos.
The Solution: Avoid Public Settings
On Facebook, a user's name, profile picture, cover photo, gender, networks, username, and user ID are always public. For other information, privacy settings can be adjusted individually; the choices are "Public" (can be seen by anyone), "Friends" (can be seen by friends only), "Custom" (a way to manually share or exclude), and "Only Me." Your child should avoid any public settings altogether, and should disable geotagging on their smartphone.
The Platform: Twitter
The second largest social networking site in the U.S., Twitter allows users to share 140-character updates, as well as links and photos, with their followers.
The Issue: Phishing and Malware
It's easy for hackers to send "phishing" attempts—or attempts to trick a user into giving out personal information—via Twitter. The fraudster sends a tweet or a direct message that includes a generic line like "You're in this photo" to entice users to click on a link. The link leads to a fake Twitter page that asks users to sign in; once they do so, their login information is stolen and their accounts can be hijacked. In other cases, clicking such links installs malware that can capture your PII, send spam to your email accounts, or attack other computers.
The Solution: Educate Your Kids
The Platforms: Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine
All three of these apps allow the sharing of photos and videos. Instagram users can upload photos and 15-second videos with captions, comment on other users' photos, and send private picture messaging. Snapchat allows users to take photos and videos, add text or drawings, and send the results to a controlled list of contacts. Images are hidden from the recipient's device and deleted from Snapchat's servers after a period of time chosen by the user, anywhere from one second to 24 hours. Finally, Vine lets users record and upload 6-second looping videos, plus leave comments on the videos of others.
The Issue: Sexting and Cyberbullying
A 2012 study by University of Texas researchers found that at least 30 percent of U.S. teens are "sexting" (sending nude or partially nude photos via email, text, or social media). Not only do posts like these violate anti-child pornography laws—meaning that depending on state laws, minors caught sexting can face heavy fines or even jail time—but they often wind up in the wrong hands. A compromising photo that is shared beyond its initial audience can be used for blackmail or cyberbullying. A report by the Internet Watch Foundation found that, not surprisingly, sexters were at risk for severe depression if they lost control over their private content.
The Solution: A Relaxed Conversation
Talk to your teens about the heavy repercussions, both legal and personal, of sexting. Make sure your conversation is relaxed and supportive rather than accusatory. Find out which photo-sharing and other social media apps they use, and connect with them ("friend" them) to get a sense of with whom they're interacting online.
The Platforms: WhatsApp and Kik
Kik, a free instant messaging app for mobile devices, uses a phone's data plan or Wi-Fi to send and receive messages. Messages can be sent to up to ten people at once and can include photos, videos, text, and other content. WhatsApp, another instant messaging service, is Internet-based. Users can send text, audio, images, video, and location information. Both Kik and WhatsApp allow free international correspondence.
The Issue: Stranger Danger
Your teen may have instant-messaging "friends" all over the world, but do you (or your teen) know who they really are? Scams such as "catfishing"—when predators create fictitious social media profiles to trick people into emotional or romantic relationships—are on the rise.
The Solution: Make an Agreement
Remind your teen that online, not everyone is who they seem to be. You may consider instituting parental controls or making an agreement with your child that messages can only be sent to real-life friends.
The best advice to keep kids safe on social media is to talk to them. Ask sincerely for their input and advice on social media and their use of it—treat them like the expert they are on the subject! Establishing a trusting and supportive relationship can go a long way toward ensuring your children use social media responsibly.