You Don’t Have To Wait for Congress—Tools To Protect Your Kids Online Today

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Today's senate hearing with social media bigwigs from Meta to TikTok made me double down on helping parents be proactive about their kids' online safety. From Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg basically denying that there's any risk to teens on social media—and then being bullied into an impromptu apology to the families in attendance—to senators asking questions and giving no time for the CEOs to answer, I wasn't left with a lot of hope.

Sad, depressed young teenage girl victim of cyberbullying by mobile smart phone sitting on stairs feeling lonely, unhappy, hopeless, and abused. Bullied by text message on social media app. Dark light

Image: SB Arts Media, iStock

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Despite a Surgeon General advisory about the impact of social media on kids' mental health and a growing number of states suing Meta with claims of fueling a mental health crisis, it's hard to see either legislators or the platforms themselves coming up with any quick action to help protect kids from mental health risks and other dangers lurking on social media. But the good news is there are tools out there that you can use right now to help keep kids safer online—especially on social media platforms.

Best practices for online safety

  • Keep your kids off social media (as long as you can). That means on your accounts, too. Don't post photos of your child; don't give away where they go to school, what teams or other extracurricular activities they participate in, or anything else that can let online predators know where they are or what they're into. Predators use this info to target and gain trust from kids online.
  • Talk to your kids about the dangers of social media. The goal isn't to terrify them but to help them become safe, responsible digital citizens. Cover everything from cyberbullying to online predators.
  • Update your "stranger danger" talk to cover online strangers. Last year, an 11-year-old girl was kidnapped after being targeted by a man on Roblox. He was able to build rapport by posing as someone she could trust. The fact is, you don't know who anyone really is online—make sure you can see and verify all friend requests and DMs your child gets.
  • Monitor social media usage. Once you let them go on social media, don't let your kids have private accounts you can't access. Set up the accounts with them and control the username and password.
  • Use privacy controls available in the platform—but know they're not foolproof. You still need to be vigilant. Setting an account to "private" doesn't always block outsiders. Add extra protection with parental control apps or closed-network devices (we've got recs right below).

Tools to help protect kids online

Several apps and devices are designed specifically to help you make the internet a safer place for your child to explore. Most of these tools are affordable, and depending on your needs, simple free versions can get the job done without you spending a penny.

Parental control apps

Parental control apps help you monitor content and activity across multiple platforms. Parental controls can help filter out inappropriate or unapproved (by you) websites, manage screen time, flag concerning communications, and manage contacts. For social media, we recommend Bark. Bark is specifically designed to help monitor social media activity—a feature that isn't always robust in every parental control app.

Smartphones with closed networks

Smartphones are the main gateway to social media for most kids. But they're also helpful for staying in touch with kids, tracking location, and other safety considerations. Fortunately, several companies developed smartphones for kids that use a closed network. That means there's no way for your child to access the World Wide Web from these phones. There are native apps, games, and messaging tools that are parent-approved and controlled. It's the perfect way to lay the foundation for good smartphone and (future) social media habits without throwing your child to the wolves of unfettered social media access.

Bark, our favorite parental control app for social media monitoring, also has a phone. You get all the perks of the app, but it's a fully-fledged smartphone. But Bark's not the only option out there. The Pinwheel phone is another great (and more affordable) option, and it works with the Bark parental control filter. These kid-friendly smartphones typically come without contracts and let you decide who the contacts are.

Rebecca Edwards
Written by
Rebecca Edwards
Rebecca is the lead safety reporter and in-house expert for SafeWise.com. She has been a journalist and blogger for over 25 years, with a focus on home and community safety for the past decade. Rebecca spends dozens of hours every month poring over crime and safety reports and spotting trends. Her expertise is sought after by publications, broadcast journalists, non-profit organizations, podcasts, and more. You can find her expert advice and analysis in places like NPR, TechCrunch, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, HGTV, MSN, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, and an ever-growing library of podcast, radio and TV clips in the US and abroad.

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