patient advocacy

Ensuring Kids' Online Safety: A Physician's Guide

Social media pop quiz: Snapchat has potentially thousands of underage users. Twitter is now “X”. Tiktok users in Europe will soon be able to experience the app without the tracking algorithm that customizes users’ content. The truth is that much about social media is constantly shifting, making it difficult for parents and educators to monitor kids’ online activities and the content they’re consuming. While there are no one-size-fits-all recommendations, here are some ways clinicians and parents can work together to keep kids safe online.

Online Communication & Education

One of the fundamental pillars of promoting kids' online safety is fostering open and non-judgmental communication between parents and children. By creating a safe space, parents can encourage their children to share their online experiences, challenges, and concerns without fear of reprimand. Physicians can advocate for this dialogue and provide guidance on creating an environment that prioritizes trust and empathy.

Collaborating with parents to establish clear boundaries and guidelines for internet usage is key to promoting kids' online safety. As physicians, we can provide guidance on age-appropriate online activities and counsel parents on setting appropriate time limits. By involving children in the process, parents can help them understand the rationale behind these boundaries, fostering a sense of responsibility. According to resources released during the COVID-19 pandemic by the U.S. Department of Justice, while younger children may benefit from parental controls, older children and adolescents can learn self-regulation and safety behaviors that can keep them from consuming adult content.

In today's digital age, educating children about online privacy is paramount. Physicians can play a pivotal role in teaching children about the potential risks associated with sharing personal information online and the importance of safeguarding their privacy. By explaining the potential consequences, such as identity theft or online harassment, we can empower children to make informed decisions about what information they share online and place safety barriers for younger children to interact safely online. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a fantastic Q&A tool for parents and pediatricians created by the Center of Excellence on Social Media and Youth Mental Health to navigate through social media and internet use for different ages.

Stay Informed about Social Media Trends and Platforms 

The landscape of social media platforms and trends is constantly evolving, making it essential for parents and physicians to stay informed. By keeping up-to-date with the latest developments, we can better understand the platforms children are using and the potential risks involved. This knowledge allows us to guide parents in discussions about the benefits and challenges of different social media platforms. Common Sense Media is a great resource for parents to check movie, video, and gaming content and for up to date safety recommendations and user tips for parents and children, like this article detailing how to safely use Tiktok.

Regular monitoring and supervision of children's online activities are essential for ensuring their safety. Pediatricians can emphasize the importance of parents actively engaging in this process. Encourage parents to check the websites and apps their children are using, review their online interactions, and stay aware of any changes in their behavior. By maintaining an open line of communication and demonstrating interest in their online experiences, parents can build trust and provide guidance when needed. 

Older children and teens will naturally want to follow the trends their social group is engaged in. Whether the latest fad is an internet challenge or creating content for the internet in hopes of becoming an influencer, it's important for parents and physicians to understand these trends and the potential risks associated with them. By staying informed, parents can have informed conversations with their children about the potential consequences and help them make responsible decisions online.

Additionally, it's crucial for parents to teach their children about digital literacy and critical thinking skills. With the abundance of information available online, children need to learn how to evaluate the credibility and reliability of sources. Physicians can provide guidance on teaching children to question information, fact-check, and identify misinformation or harmful content.

The needs of each individual child will vary, and clinicians can encourage parents to create up to date media plans that incorporate the child’s internet habits, self-regulation skills, media literacy, and age. For example, sibling A at age 7 might have restricted apps on their device(s) and be monitored more closely. Meanwhile, their teenage sibling B has gained more media literacy, is allowed more privacy with whom they can contact and the content they can consume, but has the same responsibility to bring questions and concerns to their parents during regular check ins.

Educate about Cyberbullying and Response Strategies

Cyberbullying is a prevalent issue in the digital age, and children need to be equipped with knowledge and strategies to respond effectively. As physicians, we can educate parents and children about the risks of cyberbullying, including its emotional and psychological impact. Teach children the importance of reporting incidents, blocking and ignoring bullies, and seeking support from trusted adults. By promoting empathy, resilience, and proactive responses, we can empower children to navigate challenging online situations confidently.

Parents and physicians should also educate themselves on how to respond to cyberbullying incidents and provide appropriate support to their children. It is crucial to teach children about the potential legal consequences of cyberbullying and encourage them to be responsible digital citizens. Additionally, parents and physicians can collaborate with schools and community organizations to implement anti-cyberbullying programs and policies. By staying informed and proactive, we can create a safer online environment for kids.

Pediatricians have a vital role in advocating for children's online safety. By encouraging open communication, establishing boundaries, and educating about online privacy and risks, we can empower parents to protect their children in the digital world. Staying informed about social media trends, utilizing parental controls, and monitoring online activities are additional tools that can enhance kids' online safety. Along with the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents and pediatricians can work together to create a safer digital environment for children, where they can explore, learn, and thrive while being protected from potential online threats.

Allie Squires

Allie Squires is PCC's Marketing Content Writer and editor of The Independent Pediatrician. She holds a master's in Professional Writing from NYU.