A Parent's Guide to Social Media
To a teenager, social media platforms are the most effective way of communicating with friends. Apps like Snapchat offer the ability to connect with friends instantaneously, sending quick photographs or instant messages whenever there’s a free moment, and letting you know when you get your responses so that you don’t have to bother waiting for one. It’s hard to ignore the appeal of instantly gratifying social communication, particularly for teenagers. All social media platforms listed below are mandated by federal legislation to have an age requirement of 13 before they can make an account. Because of how they’re designed, and because of ready access to smartphones and WiFi, you probably see your kids fully immersed in their cell phones or laptops, spending more time focusing on the screen than you’re comfortable with.
A popular question for this conundrum is, “What on earth are they doing?” Another one might be, “How do I make sure my kids are safe while they’re doing this?”
Originally, it was intended to be used as a sort of “Hot or Not” list when Mark Zuckerberg made its predecessor, Facemash. After going public in mid-2004, it progressed into one of America’s most readily used social networking platforms. It is accessible through the computer as well as being fully mobile, and has it’s own mobile app for it’s instant messaging platform, named Facebook Messenger.
What you need to know: Currently, the platform is phasing out slowly among teens and young adults, and you’re more likely to encounter adults there. For the most part, it’s regularly used for the sake of communicating with family members, sharing random content (usually photos, jokes, memes, and political news), blowing off steam, or simply having an image of yourself online.
The image and video sharing app was made by Evan Spiegel in 2012, and is easily one of the most popular social media platforms used by young adults and teens today. Only available as a mobile app, the platform’s most attractive quality is that images or videos posted publicly in your ‘Story’ will ‘disappear’ after 24 hours. While of course, nothing is ever permanently deleted on the internet, the app does not save the posted images, and will notify you if someone takes a screenshot of your public content.
What you need to know: Users have the ability to send others pictures or videos, coded as ‘snaps’ to their friends, which will delete immediately after viewing. A friend has the option to replay the content one time, and a premium user who pays for the service has the option to replay the content multiple times. Content made public is endlessly re-playable for a 24 hour period. Snapchat uses a feature similar to geo-tagging, where you can select ‘filters’ for your photos that are either very cute, or advertisements for an area based upon your location. Part of this feature is that you’re publicly visible to your friends on a large map unless you go in manually and change the setting, which you can find instructions for here. Another social feature is the chat feature, which allows you to instant message with your friends as well; the messages delete after viewing, unless saved by one party in the conversation, and the other party will be notified that the content was saved, or screenshot. Because it’s so quick and simple to use conceptually, Snapchat is frequently accessed by users (teens and young adults in particular) multiple times an hour. (Just to put it in the perspective, I’m 22, and last week I counted 47 separate instances in an hour-long period where I opened the app, replied to a friend, and closed it. 47.)
How to know your kids are safe: Snapchat handles its reports of harassment and bullying very seriously, and you have the ability to block and report people in the app, as opposed to having to send an email or go to a website online. You have the ability to make your account private, and only visible to people who are added as your friend (though many celebrities, as premium users, have features enabled where the general public can see their content but simultaneously cannot send them direct communication.)
This app was designed in 2010 specifically for iPhones by Kevin Systrom and Mark Krieger; in 2012, Facebook purchased the platform for around $1 billion in cash and stock. Easily one of the more popular apps, particularly with teens and young adults, the platform is designed for sharing pictures and video – you have the option to make permanent posts, or shortened 24 hour ‘stories’, similar to Snapchat. Most teens and young adults use it for taking aesthetically pleasing pictures or sharing internet memes, or to keep up with your favorite celebrities. There’s also a substantial amount of advertising on the platform. It is accessible for limited use on the computer, as well as through your phone.
What you need to know: People have the ability to make public individual posts, add short videos and pictures to 24-hour ‘stories’, and message each other directly. Generally speaking, this is a platform where your kids will post selfies, pictures of food, or memes. It’s exceedingly popular because the format is designed so that you have seemingly endless content that you can scroll through for an extended period of time, and you have the ability to browse different types of accounts to look at.
How to know your kids are safe: The developers make blocking and reporting users incredibly easy, either for displaying spam or other inappropriate content. Users have the ability to lock their accounts and make them private, only permitting people they approve of to see their content. Any user, even celebrity ones, can be reported depending upon their content.
Twitter was initially designed to be a sort of way to text, but through the internet – it initially began as a website during it’s inception in 2006, and later the app was introduced. Since it’s inception, it’s become one of the easiest sites to get information on current news. You can ‘follow’ friends, authors, musicians, and all varieties of celebrity, even the President of the United States. While initially Twitter had a 140 character limit, in 2017 the limit was doubled for most languages. The site and the app are excellent for sharing thoughts, news, videos, and general content all around.
What you need to know: The range of people that use the platform is broad – my mother, who’s 47, uses the platform daily for sharing blog posts and political news, and my cousin, who is 15, uses it to share wholesome dog-related content, witty one-liners, and complaints about teenage existentialism. While the platform doesn’t give the same range of communication and accessibility of Facebook, its simplicity is incredibly attractive to users, which is why there are over 300 million accounts. Unfortunately, it’s an easier platform to get harassed on, but there are ways to protect yourself from this.
How to know your kids are safe: The privacy settings allow you to make your account private so that you or your friends cannot share your content, and they also allow you to block and report people, like the platforms above all do. Unfortunately, Twitter didn’t commit to settling harassment claims and disputes until 2017, and has earned a reputation for it.
For a lot of people, the idea that their kids live in an online world that they don’t have access to is deeply unsettling, and frustrating. Knowing the basics about these platforms helps starting a conversation about why and how they’re using these platforms – which gives any parent peace of mind. There are plenty of resources and measures in place to make it easier to make sure your children engage with others on these platforms safely, and they all handle reports of harassment as seriously as they can. It’s crucial to remember that above all else, the developers of these platforms want them to be user-friendly and safe just as much as parents do.