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3 ways to keep children safe on social media

Families need to meet regularly, come up with contract for social media

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The Cook family of Rochester Hills makes a point to meet as a family. They hold regular meetings to discuss issues including how to develop and maintain a social media contract for their three children. The contract outlines how they can use devices, the Internet, apps and websites and other computer time.

"I'm a big proponent of family meetings," said Jean MacLeod, a social media specialist at Oakland Schools.

MacLeod suggests meeting as a family once a month, or whenever you feel you need to hold them.

April and Justin Cook have three children, 14-year-old Maurielle who is starting high school, Hollis, 11, who is transitioning to
middle school and 6-year-old Asher.

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They have established rules for social media but wonder if they are doing enough.

Local 4 connected the Cook family with MacLeod for a question and answer session.

MacLeod said, with smart phones and computers, much of our kids social lives have moved online.  She wants parents to understand that, for kids, social media is not all about technology, it's all about relationships.  She said parents need to be on the websites and apps their children are using.

"It means getting on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Even if our kids are too young to have an account, or even if our kids are older, they're teens and they've left Facebook in the dust and moved on to Snapchat and Kik, we will still gleam really valuable parenting information by participating in those social media platforms," MacLeod said.

April Cook is on all the sites her children use.

"April is pretty active is, making sure she's linked to the kids, whatever they're on," said Justin Cook.

MacLeod said there are three stages of parenting for social media: manage, monitor and mentor. 

The stages change as the children move onto different levels of school.
Manage:

This is for children in elementary school. Parents should teach them good digital citizenship and friendship. MacLeod says they do learn this in school but parents are their daily teachers.

"They need to make sure that their kids are understanding how to be a good friend online, how to search things online in a safe way," MacLeod said. "Basically how to be a friend on the Internet."

Monitor:

Parents move into the monitor role during middle school years.

"They need to help their middle schoolers establish emotional boundaries, act appropriately while giving them a little bit more freedom and really you need to gauge each child because an emotional age might be a little bit different than a chronological age," MacLeod said.

MacLeod said middle school children are prone to being impulsive, they're pushing their social media boundaries and are beginning to have relationships with the opposite sex.

Mentor:

High-school age children should be mentored by their parents.

"You want to give them freedom, but also give them a safety net. You want them to be able to handle their own social media life so that when they leave home they know how to do in a responsible way," MacLeod said.

The family contract for social media is posted in the Cook family's kitchen. Everyone had to agree to it, but Maurielle Cook admits it wasn't easy in the beginning.

"At first, when they were introduced, I felt like I was being restricted and I didn't really like it.  Then after a while, I started to realize it wasn't a punishment like I've done nothing wrong, it was just to keep me safe," Maurielle Cook said.

The children can only access the Internet through the family laptop in the kitchen and they must have April Cook put the password in first.

"We do on-demand spot checks. So, 'We need to see your device, take a look at it and we can just check,'" Justin Cook said.

"I know everybody's code," said April Cook about the children's passwords.

MacLeod likes the spot checks but cautions against taking drastic measures when a problem is discovered.

"Instead of deleting, cutting out or forbidding, and punishing, it needs to always be that learning step forward. That you're partnering with your child with social media in order for them to have the skills to do it alone," said MacLeod.

The Cooks feel better after meeting with MacLeod especially with Maurielle starting high school and Hollis transitioning to middle school.

"We're in manage and monitor mode, but we don't want to manage and monitor forever we want to mentor and we want to be coaches, if you will, to our kids as they develop so that was one thing that really stuck out to me," Justin Cook said.

The Cook children say the family meetings and the contract helps them have a voice and feel free to suggest changes.

"They're always willing to listen to what happens and if they hear what we have to say and think 'OK that's something to think about," Maurielle Cook said.

MacLeod recommends parents go over their own social media accounts with their children and show them what can happen with online posts.  Also, don't be afraid to show them good and bad examples to help teach good digital citizenship.

MacLeod recommends the following links as resources for parents:

  • For free K-12 digital citizenship curriculum for parents and educators, click here.
  • Resources on 'tweens, teens and social media`go to JeanMacLeod.com.