Aug 23, 2016
by Chante Hensley, MSW, Assistant Branch Director, BCS of East Tennessee
When my husband, Matt, and I became foster parents, one of our first placements was a 16-year-old girl with a smartphone and access to the internet. We soon realized she needed specific guidance to know what was (and was not) appropriate to share with her friends. Kids don’t know what it means that the information and photos they post online will be accessible forever—even kids who have grown up in today’s culture of social media sharing.
Before I came to Bethany, I worked 10 years in foster care. And over the last four years, Matt and I have had more than 40 children in our home ranging from newborn to 17. We’ve lived and breathed the following seven steps to keep children in our care safe online.
1. Communicate your expectations.
When older children and teens come into our home, we tell them upfront that we will be monitoring their online activities. This is for their protection as well as to help them learn appropriate online behavior. From day one, the rules include:
- They will give us the password to their phone.
- They can earn Wi-Fi privileges with chores and good grades (we regularly change the password).
- Phones must be turned in each day before bed.
- Snapchat, an app where photos and text messages “disappear” seconds after they are received, is not allowed.
2. Negotiate a contract.
We put our expectations in writing, leaving some spaces where we can compromise. For example:
- You will turn in your phone before bed. You pick the time.
- We will monitor what websites you visit. You pick the frequency: daily or three times a week.
These kinds of choices give kids some say in the contract. We type it up, and everyone signs it. This is helpful to have when you need to remind them of what everyone agreed to. This is especially helpful for teens who have never had to follow rules in a family context.
3. Include both benefits and consequences.
We let the kids help negotiate these as well. For example:
- Consequence: If you make up a different password you have not shared with us, your phone will be taken away.
- Benefit: If you follow the rules, you will get to keep your phone, and we will continue to pay for it.
Other benefits might be adding more data or the ability to download more songs. These might be different for each child and correlate to something specific they want. As kids are with us longer, and establish trust, they gain more access and freedom.
4. Talk about how information spreads online.
Facebook often has posts with people trying to get one million likes. We use these posts to talk about how fast and how easily information (and often misinformation) spreads and how, like the game of “telephone,” what you share can be altered. There’s what you said and then there’s what people say you said. Kids need to be intentional about what they share and who they share it with.
5. Talk about sharing appropriate photos.
In Tennessee, foster parents are not allowed to post photos of foster children online, but kids are allowed to post photos of themselves. Talk with them about what kind of photos are appropriate to share. The rules in our house are:
- Gang signs or inappropriate gestures are not allowed.
- They must be fully clothed.
- They have to have permission to post from each person in the photo.
Include your rules in your contract so you can consistently enforce consequences.
6. Talk about online threats.
Talk to the kids in your care about online predators and how to protect themselves by not giving out their name, age, address, etc., to people they don’t know. We hold a family meeting every week where we have conversations about important topics like how to protect yourself against bullying and cyberbullying and what to do if it happens.
This is so important for kids who have lower self-esteem because of abuse or neglect they’ve experienced. These kids are more vulnerable to being bullied, and they may not know whom they can trust.
7. Identify a support system.
We have all our kids list the top five people in their life they feel safe with, people they can talk to about any issue—me, Dad, grandparents, teachers, Sunday school teachers, etc. We write those names down (or use photographs for younger kids) and put them on the fridge where they can see them each day and know they are not alone.
The principles we’ve used with kids in foster care will be the same for our four children that we have adopted through foster care, now 7, 5, 2, and 1. Our 7-year-old is already asking for a phone and access to the computer, so we have begun talking with him about our rules and what it will look like when he gets that privilege.
Social media can feel like a brave new world, especially for parents who are less familiar with today’s technology. Having regular conversations and setting clear boundaries is a good place to begin keeping your kids safe online.