Social media and your foster or adopted teens: 4 risks and what you can do

Teens who are in or adopted from foster care may be particularly vulnerable to risks associated with social media because of environmental factors often present in their lives. Understanding the risks and identifying possible solutions will help you help your teen use social media safely.

April 09, 2015

Like it or not, parents, social media is here to stay.

Today’s teens have an ever-growing array of social media tools for interacting with peers and the world around them. And as with other aspects of our lives, connectedness has its benefits and its costs.

Because teens’ brains are still forming, good judgment does not always prevail. Teens who are in or adopted from foster care may be particularly vulnerable to risks associated with social media because of environmental factors often present in their lives.

Understanding the following risks will help you help your teen use social media safely.

Danger in the palms of their hands

Negative influences from the past. Teens who have spent extended amounts of time in foster homes, in group homes, or even on the streets may have entered into abusive relationships, used drugs and alcohol, or engaged in petty crime with their peers. Through social media sites like Facebook, past influencers can seek out or maintain contact with a foster or adoptive youth after they’ve been placed with your family—and encourage him or her to continue self-destructive behavior.

Unsanctioned contact with birth family members. Social media sites can facilitate contact between a teen in or adopted from foster care and his or her birth family in instances where it is not in the teen’s best interest.

Bullying. Social media can intensify bullying by expanding its reach and audience. No longer confined to the school yard, bullying transcends geographical boundaries when it takes place online. Anyone can participate and everyone can see.

Children and youth in the child welfare system are sometimes targeted for bullying. They may have developmental delays from the abuse or neglect that landed them in foster care or they may have changed schools frequently, putting them behind academically and socially.

Vulnerability to predators. Social media is a great way to connect with people you know and to meet new people. But teens may share phone numbers, addresses, personal photos, or their location inappropriately.

What you can do

Your first instinct may be to restrict or even prohibit your teen’s access to social media, but that’s nearly impossible to do. Today’s teens don’t usually access the Internet through a central family computer that can be monitored. They use laptops, tablets, and phones to connect to the web and each other around the clock from wherever they are.

Besides, for every potential risk of using social media, there’s a potential benefit. Social media can help teens meet and connect with friends, maintain contact with positive influences from the past, stay in touch with birth family when appropriate, participate in support groups, and gain access to information and resources. Social media can also help parents stay connected to teens – and informed about their thoughts, feelings, and activities.

Rather than prohibit social media use, many parents report that it’s easier to help teens use social media effectively and responsibly. Here are some strategies that have worked for others:

Determine where you stand. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of social media. Ask yourself these questions, reaching out to other parents and trusted advisors as needed:

  • Which social media sites or applications should my teen use? What’s the process for adding a new one?
  • How public should my teen’s profile on various platforms be?
  • Should my teen use his or her own name or a pseudonym?
  • What privacy settings should be used?
  • What information do I want my teen to avoid posting, and what is okay to share?
  • Is location tagging okay?
  • Who should my teen connect with?
  • How much time should be spent on social media – in a day, in a month?
  • What are the limits on how much data my teen can use?
  • How will I monitor my teen’s digital activities?

Talk to the teen’s caseworker. Caseworkers can provide guidance on which friends and family members are positive and negative influences. Use this information to help guide your teen.

Talk to your teen. Make sure he or she understands:

  • Your expectations for social media use.
  • The consequences for not meeting expectations.
  • The risks of connecting and sharing information with people online and of posting contact information or location online.
  • Words and pictures emailed, texted, or posted online are immediately out of one’s control – and can remain on the Internet indefinitely.

Make a contract. Create a contract with your teen, detailing how and when to use social media. Make sure it describes the consequences for breaking the contract.

Help your teen choose appropriate privacy settings. These settings will be different for each application, and the options may change over time, so it’s a good idea to review the privacy settings on social media applications regularly – maybe every 3 or 4 months.

Friend or follow your teen. You don’t have to actively participate, but check in on what your teen is posting and how he or she is interacting. Discuss any concerns you have. Notice any declines in your teen’s activities – he or she may be blocking you from viewing some posts, or he or she may have moved on to a different social media application.

Search. Try typing your teen’s name, nickname, and handle into a search engine like Google or Bing to see what shows up. One mother reported that her search turned up a picture of her daughter, whose school had tagged her in an article about a school project. The tagged photo included the girl’s picture, full name, and the school she attended.

Watch your own online behavior. In social media as in other aspects of life, teens watch what their parents do. Make sure your use of social media adheres to the guidelines you set for your teen – especially regarding his or her privacy. And foster parents should exercise extra care: most states have strict rules about the information you can share publicly about foster children. If you have any questions, contact the child’s caseworker.

Helping your children learn how to use social media effectively and safely is today’s version of teaching them how to answer the telephone or the door. For them it’s about how they should present to the world -- and for you, a daily opportunity and challenge to parent wisely.

Additional reading

Want to learn more? WSBTV  in Atlanta reported on the “unknown epidemic” of teens and tweens being exploited by online predators.

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