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How to safely introduce children to the social media world

Posted October 30

 (Deseret Photo)

Parents have plenty of reasons to worry about what their kids do online.

Dangers seem to lurk in every corner of connected life, especially for children. Remember that federal regulation prohibits children under the age of 13 from joining most social networking sites. Even so, more than 20,000 kids try to sneak their way onto Facebook — with or without their parents’ help — every single day.

Technology is an integral, helpful, often spectacular part of our world that is a necessity. And with the majority of Americans using Facebook, 90 million people in the United States using Instagram and 17 percent of Americans even using Twitter, it’s obvious we all love our social media. So is it really logical for parents to ban their children from joining? They want to chat with friends, watch funny videos and be part of a fun online community too.

Prepare children for the cyber world just like you would for the real world. Start with a lot of control and restrictions. Then, as they master certain tech skills, give them baby steps to cyber freedom until they are able to make responsible choices on their own.

Help them navigate starter websites and apps that can teach valuable skills. Moms and dads can tutor their kids in social media etiquette, safety and restraint for a few years before taking the training wheels off. Before parents know it, children will have all the skills necessary to jump into mainstream social media at the age of 13.

Start children off by letting them wade into the shallow end of social networking with some safer alternatives to the big players like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Let’s begin with the littles. Disney has stepped up with a wonderful website and app for younger kids ages 5-7. Club Penguin is a game of sorts where children have penguin avatars and can mingle with other penguin kids. Users play games to earn virtual money to buy outfits, accessories and decor for their igloos. A cool aspect is that there is always a moderator waiting at the push of a button. If kids feel like something isn’t quite right, they can report it in real time. Users can chat with each other about favorite colors or activities and chat settings simply do not allow kids to share any personal information like addresses. The built-in controls also ban inappropriate words. Penguins can hang out together, too, and send postcards and invitations to each other.

For bigger kids, try the social network yoursphere. It’s the next stepping stone for 8- to 9-year-olds before they head off to bigger social media sites. Yoursphere has hundreds of free games and a zero tolerance attitude toward bullying. In an effort to fulfill the site’s "no sexual predators" promise, adults must submit to a background check before setting up an account for a child. No one over age 18 is allowed on the site. It has a Facebook-like feed of what friends are doing and users can post photos, tag friends and use message boards and chat rooms. While Common Sense Media recommends the social network for kids, parent reviews are a mixed bag.

Tweens between the ages of 10 and 12 may be ready for a more comprehensive social media experience. Kidzworld allows children to create profiles, chat with friends and play games. The site uses software and a real live human to monitor the chat room and make sure nothing inappropriate is going on. Kids will see movie and game reviews, and be able to read articles on celebrities and sports. One parent review said they noticed a lot of self-harm talk on the site, but as I scrolled through the blog posts, I didn’t see anything like that. What I did read was a lot of content about annoying younger siblings, hating school and crushes.

It’s a good idea to start with one of these more restricted websites or apps if your child is wanting to be part of the social media world. But like any technology, a kid’s involvement will mean work for parents. Even though these apps are touted to be safer alternatives to other social media networks, parents will still need to be vigilant. Moms and dads should play around for a while on the sites first before signing up kids. And then make sure you have conversations — not just once — about how to be a proper contributor to the online world. Parents may want to sign a social media contract with their kids like this one from imom. Social media is likely an inevitable component of your children’s lives. Parents should get them started the right way: standing by their side, and guiding them along with love.

Amy Iverson is a graduate of the University of Utah. She has worked as a broadcast journalist in Dallas, Seattle, Italy, and Salt Lake City. Amy, her husband, and three kids live in Summit County, Utah. Contact Amy on Facebook.com/theamyiverson

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