By Pat Rhoads
Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay.
Social media has gone from the cool new fad to an ever-present reality in the lives of most Americans. This is especially true for teens. Roughly 94 percent of them are online every day, where they are spending an average of nine hours on an ever-increasing array of social media sites — from Snapchat and Instagram to YouTube and Facebook.
Further complicating your life if you are a parent who wants to keep tabs on your children’s online activity are mobile phones. Sixty-nine percent of social media access happens via our smartphones. Where you might once have been able to keep an eye on activity happening on a family computer in the living room, teens can now access the internet at any place, at any time, and while actively avoiding your prying eyes.
If those teens are in foster care, or recently adopted from foster care, there may be even more risks to be aware of when it comes to their online activities.
How teens use social media
For the most part, teen development hasn’t changed. This phase of life is one of self-exploration. Teens want to find out who they are, and they do so through experimenting with their clothes, social circles and personas.
It is also a time for making mistakes. Adolescents’ brains are still developing, and they are often not able to predict consequences for their actions. In the era before social media, those consequences could be severe, but they were typically contained within a person’s community. That’s not necessarily true anymore.
Some of that bad judgement can be dangerous when teens exercise it online:
- 55 percent have provided information to someone they didn’t know.
- 29 percent have been contacted by a stranger.
- 43 percent change behavior if a parent is watching.
- 67 percent know how to hide their online activity from parents.
Social media and our foster and adoptive teens — the bad
When it comes to foster and adoptive teens, you may have even more to worry about than the standard (and already stressful) array of teen activity that can get them into trouble. In particular, there are two primary concerns I see:
• Unauthorized contact with birth family. For many teens from foster care, contact with birth parents and other members of their birth family is approved and healthy. However, there are times where this is not the case, and contact with a birth parent or other birth family member may prevent them from healing from past trauma.
• Unhealthy (or downright dangerous) connections from their time in care. Children who spent time living on the streets or in the company of people who took advantage of them can be contacted by people who preyed on their vulnerabilities in the past and may plan to in the future.
It’s not all bad news
While it’s easy to focus on the risks social media use can bring, there are a number of benefits, especially for foster and adopted children:
- Maintaining sibling connections. Safe and healthy relationships with siblings (and other similar family connections) should be preserved if at all possible. Those relationships might be disrupted when children enter foster care, and continuing contact through social media can offer needed support and stability to a child in foster care.
- Sustaining relationships with other people who have provided encouragement and support when their lives were in turmoil — such as previous caseworkers, CASA volunteers and foster parents — can provide a sense of security.
- Monitoring their activity. Keeping an eye on children’s social media profiles can give you a lot of insight about their lives, especially who they hang out with and what they like to do — at least what they’re willing to post online, which is usually a lot.
- Establishing a connection when things go awry. I recall a story of a young man in foster care who was prone to running away from his foster homes. He also had a habit of frequently posting on Facebook. So when he would run away, his caseworker would simply keep an eye on his Facebook page, and sure enough, he’d post something about where he was and who he was with within a few hours.
What can you do?
With all the risks out there, it might be tempting to consider banning your teens from social media completely. That’s not only impractical but in the end it could do more harm than good.
Instead, approach social media and other online activity like you do other sensitive topics: communication. Talks with your teen should include:
- Teaching them how to manage their privacy settings.
- Cautioning them about what information they include in social media posts, including what’s in their photos.
- Insisting that they don’t connect with anyone online unless they know them “in real life” already.
There are other things you can do to try and ensure your teen’s safety online. A few tips:
- If you pay for their phone or their monthly plan, consider making them sign a contract that stipulates that you are allowed access to their device (better for younger teens).
- Conduct regular searches online for your child’s name — you may find information about your child published online that you were previously unaware of.
- Keep your child’s phone someplace where they can’t access it at night, such as in your bedroom.
- Consider installing a parent-control app on your child’s phone; Digital Trends and Tom’s Guide publish lists of apps and how they can help you monitor your child’s activity.
- Educate yourself about apps used by some teens that hide or disguise what they have on their phones; TeenSafe maintains an annual “Smartphone App Blacklist” that parents can use to learn more.
It’s said that parenting in the days of mobile phones and the internet is a lot harder than parenting when we were young. That may very well be true. But the changes are here to stay, and we owe it to our children to do everything we can to prepare them for the world they live in now, and to keep them safe while they learn.
Pat Rhoads is the social media manager for AdoptUSKids, a national, federally-funded project working to ensure that children and teens in foster care get safe, loving, permanent families. During his nearly eight years at AdoptUSKids, Rhoads has spoken and written numerous times on the topic of social media in child welfare. In his day-to-day job, Rhoads spends his time using social media to raise awareness about the need for foster and adoptive families, and providing information and resources to the public.