To keep kids safe on social media, parents have to get involved
It’s a problem parents now face on a more or less daily basis: How do you keep your children safe on social media? If you’re struggling with the issue, technology analyst and journalist Scott Steinberg believes he might be able to help. In “The Modern Parent’s Guide to Facebook and Social Networks,” which hits shelves Aug. 22, Steinberg and coauthor Johner Riehl offer their advice on how to protect kids when they use Facebook, Snapchat, and other social networks. Steinberg recently took the time to speak with us about his new book.
What made you want to write
A. As we know, millions of parents and kids are connecting now via social networks — the challenge being that, to date, I hadn’t seen a definitive guide or much in the way of basic training being provided in classrooms, family rooms, or boardrooms across America. It really felt as if there was a gap there in terms of basic training and education that could really help people connect more successfully and enjoy a healthier experience online. It only felt natural that they be given a guide or an opportunity to learn a little bit more about how they can make the most of it.
What was the research process
for the book like?
A. It took about a year to put together. So many of these networks move at such a rapid pace; the minute you think you can put out one fire or address one concern, 12 more can spring up. With so much happening out there, we really wanted to take the time to see what was going on in the social media landscape, and give folks some good tools they could use year after year.
Q. Did you work directly with any of the social media platforms you discuss in the book?
A. No, it was independently put together. Many of the popular social networks offer guides and tools online as basic starting points, which is great to see, but by and large we put it together ourselves.
Q. Do you have kids yourself? If so, how did your experiences with them impact the book?
A. I do, although I don’t usually put too much out there. Certainly my coauthor has several children. When you do have kids, you think about these things, and you realize that kids are coming of age in a world where wireless connectivity is 24/7. It’s always on, and they’re encouraged to put more of themselves out there than ever before, faster than ever before, without a second thought. So it’s a top concern for many parents, and for schools and educators as well. Giving them the tools that they need to be a little more effective about doing the research and preparing to greet some of the challenges out there in the online world, it’s something we really wanted to help them address. And I think we’ve done quite nicely.
Q. How do parents keep up with an ever-changing social media landscape, especially those who would rather not engage with social media — or engage only minimally?
A. I think the first thing that we try and remind people is that homework is not just for kids; adults absolutely have to do research and be involved as well, because knowing really is half the battle. These sites and services can change fast, and deciding that you’re not going to be a part of them is kind of a non-option at this point. The Internet is a very public space, and in the same way you wouldn’t let kids go off unsupervised into other public areas, you have to make sure that they’re properly chaperoned and supervised in these online spaces as well. The good news for parents who may feel a little overwhelmed is that, yes, things can move pretty quickly, but once you learn the basics, you’ll have mastered most of what you need to stay up to date with the changes. Then when you have to go update and learn a little bit more it won’t be anywhere near as difficult.
Q. How closely should parents be monitoring the social media activity of their children?
A. The short answer is you want to be concerned about who your child is interacting with, what they’re doing online and what kind of experiences they’re having. So it’s vitally important, before they ever even connect online, to begin having some of these conversations and giving them the tools and training that they need so that they can operate more effectively in an online world. At the same time, you have to have a healthy sense of skepticism — that’s what you need to instill in them, not necessarily a sense of paranoia.
Realistically, as a parent you have to understand that inevitably, without fail, some of their interactions are going to take place outside of your ability to watch and monitor, so kids are inevitably going to run into questionable or controversial content online. I always think it’s a good idea if possible for kids and parents to be connected on these services. That way, they know that [the parents are] there and they’re a trusted presence. Letting them know that you’re there and that you’re involved is the most important thing you can do.
Q. What would you like to see social media networks do to improve child safety?
A. I would like to see us having more discussions surrounding Internet safety and kids’ use of social networks, to really talk about what types of things they’re seeing online and figure out ways that they can perhaps limit interactions to safe lists of people. Certainly many sites offer these tools and solutions, but keep in mind, they’re technology platforms, and technology is just a tool. It tends to be neutral in nature. Whether you have a positive experience or a negative experience is all in how you use the tool.
It’s not just the responsibility of social networks, but also of parents, teachers, and various organizations and lawmakers, to work together and provide kids with the learning, education, and training that they need to have more positive, healthier experiences online. The biggest challenge is nobody’s decided quite whose responsibility it is to be giving kids these insights. I think it’s important that we think about how we, at the most basic level — in fact I’d like to see it at elementary schools across America — begin having these conversations and providing kids with the insight and education that they need to enjoy a much more positive online experience.