January 22, 2022

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Time to get a handle on TikTok?: How parents can monitor what their kids do on social media – USA TODAY

6 min read

The latest TikTok trend involving warnings of potential violence at schools may have parents wondering how can they get a handle on their children’s social media usage. Experts say it’s not easy.

After a slew of vague, anonymous shooting and bomb threats went viral this week, school districts across the U.S. issued warnings, beefed up security and, in some cases, canceled classes.

No major effects resulted, but this is just the most recent social media-related predicament parents have found themselves – and their children – caught up in.

With several TikTok-connected incidents lately – including “challenges” to slap teachers and vandalize schools – parents may be wondering what they can and should do to keep track of what their kids are being exposed to on social media. 

For starters, you want to know if your child is using an app such as TikTok, which has more than one billion users already. The short-form video app has a curated version for users under the age of 13 (new users must pass through an age gate to use the app). For those aged 13-15, TikTok defaults accounts to private and users must approve followers and allow comments.

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But many kids who are younger do use the app, including the 8-year-old daughter of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, North Kardashian, who this week started a live video of her mom in bed before Kim Kardashian said, “No, stop, you’re not allowed to,” BuzzFeed reported.

“I think it’s very important for parents to know when their kids are using the app, in particular younger kids,” said Yalda Uhls, a professor of psychology and founding director of the Center for Scholars & Storytellers at UCLA. “At that age, they are too young to really understand the vastness and permanence of the Internet, and thus it is critical for parents to be involved if they let their child go on the app.”

How can parents keep up with their kids’ social media usage?

Most parents didn’t grow up with social media and two-thirds of them (66%) say parenting has gotten harder than it was 20 years ago, largely because of smartphones and social media, according to the Pew Research Center. Even though nearly three-fourths (73%) of those 50 to 64 say they use social media, platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok skew much younger, the center’s research has found.

The good news: TikTok is easier to understand than messaging app Snapchat, which also lets you send customized video messages that disappear in 24 hours. The bad news: Parents may underestimate TikTok, which also lets you post videos edited to include music, text, and other special effects.

“Sometimes parents think it’s harmless,” Uhls said. But “it’s very easy for young kids to use. Thus it has raised the stakes in terms of getting involved in your child’s social media life long before they are really ready for these tools.”

Parents can download the app themselves and try to learn a bit about how the platform works.

On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, you choose to connect with another person or follow an account. Although you can follow an account on TikTok, it “is very different because you’re just getting a feed of videos that the platform thinks you’d be interested in,” said Andrew Selepak, a professor at the University of Florida and director of the graduate program specializing in social media. A young person is going to be served up different content than an adult, he said.

But tap on “Discover” and you can search for “challenges” or “music” to see what’s currently trending on the app.

Tech can help you protect your child online

If your child wants to get on TikTok, parents can start by sharing an account with them using the app’s Family Pairing feature, suggests Common Sense Media’s Parents’ Ultimate Guide to TikTok. Parents can see what kids watch and post, but the guide notes that kids can create a different account with a different email address and phone number. 

Also under Digital Wellbeing in the app’s settings: screen time management and restricted content features.

Most devices also have parental controls, which let you set parameters or limits for how long a device or app can be used and restrict access to certain apps and to some content. Details about Apple’s parental controls for screen time and content can be found on Apple’s website, while instructions for screen time and allowed apps on Android devices can be found here.

For more options, consider Bark, a leading app, which can be installed on a child’s Android or iOS smartphone or device. Bark can be set up to monitor screen time, block or allow certain apps and send alerts to parents when their child has come across – or searched for – certain content (violence, sexual content, online predators, suicide, depression, anxiety).

Bark software monitors texts, email, YouTube, and more than 30 other apps including TikTok that your child uses. When it finds signs of issues like cyberbullying, sexual content, online predators, depression, suicidal ideation, and threats of violence, parents get an alert via email and text.

“The app serves as your dashboard, where you can look at all of your different kids and all the different accounts, what you might need to connect with, who has alerts, what are the alerts and, what do you do?” said Titania Jordan, chief parent officer at Bark.

The best tactic is talking about social media

Monitoring apps may work for awhile, but as children get older “it’s almost a badge of honor for a tween (or) teen to get around” them, said Uhls, who is on Bark’s advisory board.

Education about social media – parents and kids can learn together – and discussion about various platforms is important, she said. 

The recent TikTok school safety event could offer an opportunity to show interest in and broach the subject with your kids. “Social media breeds anxiety in adults, and for some good reasons, but to maintain a window into our kids’ online lives, we have to come from a place of curiosity rather than condemnation,” said Christine Elgersma, senior editor of social media and learning resources at Common Sense Media.

Parents, caregivers and teachers should remember “that what we see as kids’ onscreen lives they see as just their lives. There’s no division,” she said. Starting discussions about what is happening on social media should start early, because “kids can get more and more tight-lipped around parents as they get older, which is normal,” Elgersma said.

A good approach: Be curious, ask what your child’s friends are doing on social media, as a way of avoiding a direct question. “Playing up the ‘dorky adult’ angle and asking kids to school us on what’s new or cool puts them in a position of power and being in-the-know, and we get some of the info we want,” she said.

And remember, just because a child doesn’t have a smartphone or the TikTok app doesn’t mean they might not be exposed to what’s on the app. TikTok videos can be shared on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and through texting. “If your child rides the bus, if your child is around other kids that do have a smartphone, in the lunchroom, at recess, chances are one of them has it and they will see it. It’s inevitable,” Jordan said.

Parents, she said, “need to have those difficult, but very important conversations with them about school violence, cyberbullying, pornography, online predators and mental health. All of these things are just so much more in our children’s faces than they were when we were kids. And  we are their support system, we have to address it, we have to be there for them.”

Some help may come from Congress, which has held hearings on social media recently.  “It’s great for a parent to sit and talk to their child about (the issues),” Selepak said. “It seems like it’s up to the platforms to understand the dangers … and (have content) removed to prevent impressionable underage kids from doing stupid things.”

Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @mikesnider.

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