Social media is hugely popular. Every day one billion people actively use Facebook and millions of Instagram photos are shared.

For the majority of people social media is a positive experience, a way to share photos and news stories and communicate with family and friends all over the world. If you are a parent there’s a good chance your child will want to use social media. If you have very young children, you can probably prevent them, but if they have access to laptops, games consoles, tablets and smartphones, it becomes increasingly difficult. 

[Read more: Are you sharing too much about your children online?]

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat have a minimum age policy of 13 and WhatsApp’s is 16. However it’s fairly easy to circumnavigate this by entering false information.

As a parent, the best thing you can do is be aware of the risks of using social media and communicate these to your child. So, if a problem occurs, you are both ready.

BT supports Internet Matters a not for profit e-safety organisation. All BT Broadband users can activate Parental Controls to help keep their children safe.

Girl unhappy using laptop

Risks for children using social media

Bullying: Your child may encounter online bullies, they could be strangers or people they know who leave cruel comments on their posts or via messaging services. Your child could get involved in online bullying – actively or unintentionally.

Sexual grooming:  The world is a big place and the internet brings people together who may never have met. Some people hide behind the anonymity of the internet. It’s easy to fake an online profile and pretend to be someone you are not.

[Read more: Social media advice for parents]

For example, someone who claims to be a 12-year-old school boy may be a 60-year-old man, with the aim of sexually grooming children. These people often build up a relationship with a child, earning their trust before manipulating them into doing things they may not normally do or understand. As well as being incredibly damaging to the child, it could lead to blackmail.

Girl being cyberbullied

Peer pressure: Other children could encourage mischief-making. This could be harmless, but your child may feel pressure to do or say things to be part of a group.

Oversharing: Your child might unwittingly be giving too much information away, such as where they live, their date of birth, or their school. Sharing this information publically isn’t safe.  Special consideration needs to be given to using personal photographs online – sending a picture to someone may seem harmless, but can be shared within seconds.

Identity theft: Identity theft does happen online. Someone may pretend to be your child, or pretend to be someone your child knows.

Explicit content: There are a lot of things unsuitable for children online, including sexual or pornographic content, extreme views such as racism and homophobia, and harmful behaviour like anorexia or self-harming.

[Read more: 6 ways to protect your privacy online]

How social media risks may affect your child

Every child is different, but here are some outcomes to be aware of:

  • Developing unhealthy ideas about body image or gender.
  • Becoming withdrawn and not wanting to socialise or attend school.
  • Being distressed by things they see and unsure what to do.
  • Confusion over adult subjects or intense interactions they don’t understand.
  • Actively or unwittingly taking part in dangerous behaviour: this could range from sending an explicit photo of themselves to a stranger, or picking on someone.
  • Fear of missing out could lead to online embellishment and even internet addiction.
  • The internet seems anonymous, but what is posted online could be captured and shared. This could be distressing and could cause problems later in life when getting a school place or job.

Boy lying on bed looking sadly at phone

Tips to protect your child on social media

Social networks all offer advice for parents, so make sure you read them and understand what you can do. Click the links below to access advice pages:

For more information check out the Internet Matters website, which is packed with useful tips.

Internet Matters infographic WhatsApp

How to keep your child safe online

Talk to your child about what social networks they are using and what they like about them.

If you’ve got a young child, make sure safety features are activated. If your child is slightly older, talk through the following safety features together, so your child understands what each one does:

Private account: The majority of social networks allow you to set your profile to private. This means only people whose friend request they approve will be allowed to see your child’s account.

Girl using laptop in bedroom

Location: Discourage your child from posting their location. Many apps have a geolocation feature, so make sure this is turned off.

Tagging: If your child is tagged in a post by someone else, it may appear in their Facebook timeline without their approval, so encourage them to set up tagging approval.  How to control tagging on Facebook.

Privacy settings:  On Facebook various privacy settings allow you to determine who can see each post. Make sure the default is set to Friends, not Public. How to control who can see Facebook posts.

Friend requests: Discourage your child from accepting friend requests from strangers. Anyone can add you as a friend by default on Facebook, so change this to Friends of Friends. How to control friend requests on Facebook.

Blocking users: It might not seem like a nice thing to do, but show your child how to block users and report abuse.

Filters: All ISPs have filters to help young children browse the web safely, so make sure you activate it. If you are a BT customer you can access BT Parental Controls, which has three filter levels. Once activated it covers all devices using your network, including laptops, consoles, smartphones and tablets.

You may want to add a social network to your blocked list, setting specific times each day a website can be accessed. This way you can monitor use. However, the block doesn’t apply to apps, so they’ll still be able to use them on a smartphone or tablet.

Bullying: The links below show you how to report harassment or bullying behaviour on the main social networks:

Girl talking to mum with phone

Finally… talk to your child

You might not want your children to use social media, but banning it is not the most effective option.  They may find other ways to use it secretly, and if there is a problem may be too afraid to approach you.

It’s really important to talk to your children about social media, try to understand why they use it, and inform them of potential dangers. This allows you to understand what they are doing and encourages them to think about the implications of their online actions and how they behave.

Check out our article: What to do if your child gets in trouble online.

For a comprehensive and easy-to-use resource of the most up-to-date information for keeping your child safe online, visit the website Internet Matters.