Keeping Kids Safe from Social Media and Internet Influence

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In December 2021, millions of Americans were on edge about sending their kids to school after hearing about possible threats of violence.

Some school districts sent out messages assuring parents their children were safe, while others made the decision to close. All of this was happening while parents, students, schools and law enforcement agencies were already on high alert after a high school shooting in Michigan left four students dead just weeks before.

All of this, it turned out, was part of a viral hoax on a popular social media platform.

The widespread and frantic response serves as a reminder of just how much power and influence social media can have on our communities, particularly on our children.

So how can adults help mitigate the often serious effects of online and social media influence? To help them see what’s real, what’s fake and what’s problematic? For parents and caregivers raising children in this new digital age, it can feel overwhelming to even know where to start.

But the good news is you don’t have to be a tech expert or a social media guru to help create a barrier of safety between your child and internet influence. In reality, a few small steps can make all the difference. Below are four simple, yet powerful concepts you can start using as a caregiver today.

About Roderick

Roderick Chambers serves as an information security and intelligence advisor for public and private sector entities, as well as a board member for American SPCC. As a career security intelligence professional with over 14 years of field experience, he has designed, implemented, and supported information security programs at organizations of all sizes in industries worldwide. Previous titles include Deputy Superintendent of the Intelligence Unit with the New York State DFS, Regional Manager of Recorded Future, and Federal Certified Operations Officer.

He is the father to a lovely 7-year-old Laila, 14-year-old Jeremiah, and spouse to Dr. Chawanna Bethany Chambers, who are the inspiration behind securing the digital age of technology. Roderick and his family live in San Antonio.

1. Recognize the real influence of influencers & social media challenges

First, let’s break down the concept of “influencers” and “social media challenges.”

 

baby crying - shaken baby syndrome prevention

Influencers are now what many previously called “icons” and “heroes,” (sports stars, musicians, artists, and actors all come to mind). In the digital age, these influencers transcend age, race, and geography. If you ever searched the net worth of one particular influencer that plays with and reviews toys online for a living, you would be shocked. Your kids, my kids, our kids may watch these influencers and try to listen to their tips, mimic their actions, and maybe even their behavior.

It is essential to tap into your child’s online behavior, talk to them about the definition of an influencer, identify examples of influences they are watching, and highlight those moments, the people, their actions, and your family’s expectations. (More on the communication component in just a bit.)

 

Social media challenges are everywhere these days and you’ve likely come across at least one of them. But while some of them may appear harmless or funny, there are often more serious consequences taking place.

For example, you likely remember seeing the widely popular and often-funny Ice Bucket Challenge several years ago. You probably heard that it raised MILLIONS for the ALS Foundation. But what you may not have been aware of were the dangerous, sometimes fatal outcomes of these attempts. In subsequent news reports, experts explained why people choosing to do the challenge incorrectly caused acute experiences of hypothermia and even fatalities.

More recently, you may have come across other popular challenges that enticed people to create “sunburn art” or test your pain tolerance by putting ice and salt on your skin for as long as possible. It’s easy to see how these challenges can lead to dangerous consequences, especially when attempted by audiences who are aiming for outlandish content that gets “likes” from their friends and the public. The idea of “going viral” on social media is an enticing proposition for many children and teens.

 

2. Stay connected and in communication with your child

baby crying - shaken baby syndrome prevention

The best way to combat the effects of negative online influences is to have a pulse on the digital world and your child’s consumption. A great way to figure out whether the internet – or anything for that matter – is influencing your child is to simply ask them. Make social media and media consumption a regular topic of discussion with your family. What are they watching? What do they think of it? How does it make them feel? What are their peers thinking? The goal with these conversations isn’t to be nosey or behave like a detective, but to show genuine interest in what’s going on in your child’s life that might not naturally come up in conversation.

If you learn there’s a trend, an influencer, a show, a social media challenge or anything else that seems problematic, risky or concerning, ask follow up questions and help your child see any of the hidden implications of what they’re participating in. Help them understand the fuller picture and guide them towards more informed decisions and thought processes.

3. Have dedicated tech-free times

Of course, one issue with online influences is just how much time kids and adults spend online these days. Laptops, tablets and cell phones are common personal items for children in school and at home. And while technology in itself can be a positive tool for learning and communication, I’ve also seen firsthand how our dependence on these items can often go too far.

After realizing how glued my two children were to their screens in the evenings especially, we started doing things a bit differently. We now make a point to leave our devices in the living room to charge and reboot at nighttime. We also have phone-free outings to give us a chance to bond without notifications or digital distractions (we do still leave my phone in the car in case of emergencies). Different measures will make sense for different families, but having some ground rules about where and when screens are used can help create healthier habits and keep the whole family grounded more in the present moment. It’s certainly made a difference for us.

baby crying - shaken baby syndrome prevention

4.Enable security controls for YouTube content

Many users are becoming aware of the various ways individual accounts and organizations are finding ways to skirt algorithm controls and get their content in front of underage users. Specifically, I’ve seen several cases of YouTube videos using child-oriented search terms to evade the company’s attempts to control them.

So how do we prevent the videos such as Paw Patrol characters attempting suicide and Peppa Pig being tricked into eating bacon? (Yes, these really happened). There’s a marked absence of actual controls to limit the kind of content your child sees, even by language.

To help protect against suspicious or inappropriate content, you can enable restricted mode, bearing in mind that this will apply to only the browser or device you’re using when you set it.

If you run across anything that you’d rather not see in YouTube’s suggested content bar on the right, you can mouse over thumbnails, select the “…” icon at the top right of the preview window and select ‘not interested.’ This doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never see a video again, but it makes it somewhat less likely to appear.

Videos you’ve seen before are often recommended for repeat viewing and are used to inform other recommendations. If you or your child watched something undesirable in the past, you can either selectively or entirely clear your YouTube history to prevent troubling content from influencing your future viewing.

If you want to block videos, you’ll have to turn to third-party tools such as Video Blocker for Chrome and Firefox, a browser extension that can block channels by full name or partial wildcard, and videos by keywords.

Moving Forward

There’s no denying it’s a new technology and communications landscape out there, and children today are consuming media much differently and more rapidly than previous generations. It can feel overwhelming as a caregiver to feel like you’re not doing enough to monitor children’s activities and keep them safe, but my hope is that these general steps help bring some confidence and peace of mind. If we show our children we are genuinely interested in the content they’re consuming, we’ll naturally serve as a buffer between harmful content and what could lead to harmful outcomes.

About Roderick

Roderick Chambers serves as an information security and intelligence advisor for public and private sector entities, as well as a board member for American SPCC. As a career security intelligence professional with over 14 years of field experience, he has designed, implemented, and supported information security programs at organizations of all sizes in industries worldwide. Previous titles include Deputy Superintendent of the Intelligence Unit with the New York State DFS, Regional Manager of Recorded Future, and Federal Certified Operations Officer.

He is the father to a lovely 7-year-old Laila, 14-year-old Jeremiah, and spouse to Dr. Chawanna Bethany Chambers, who are the inspiration behind securing the digital age of technology. Roderick and his family live in San Antonio.

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