The murder of 13-year-old Nicole Lovell in North Carolina last week sent shudders through many parents. Police believe the girl was having a relationship with an 18-year-old man, whom she primarily communicated with through social media. It appears that Nicole used the social media app Kik to talk to the man.

The takeaway for parents is not only how tragic and sad the story is, but that we must do everything we can to protect our children in terms of social media usage. We all know the benefits of social media, but in the hands of our children, it can be extremely dangerous because of the inherent anonymity and the ability to let almost anyone with any intention into their lives.

Cases like Nicole's should serve as a stark and persistent reminder that social media is not necessarily a safe place for children. Allowing them free and unlimited access to it is not the approach parents should take.

Ultimately it requires diligence, and open lines of communication with our kids. Here are a few things we can do to protect our kids on social media, and how to recognize if your child is having problems handling it.

1. Set Age Limits

You and your spouse need to have very real conversation about what age is appropriate for your children to begin a social media presence. The age might differ for each child, due to their maturity level and whether you think they can handle it.

2. Create Time Limits

How much time can they spend on social media? Can they use it before they do their homework? What about before bed? You must have clear and concise answers to these questions and you must be ready to enforce them. Also consider locking up their phones at night when they’re in their bedroom, because the temptation to use the device might be too strong for them to resist.

3. Keep Them Active

There’s an old saying that goes, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” When kids have nothing to do, they will likely try to fill that time with television, video games, and social media. As parents, we need to try and keep our kids engaged so that these pursuits do not take over their lives. Encourage your kids to play sports, find a part-time job if they’re old enough, or get involved in an after-school club. Engaging their minds elsewhere will keep them off of social media.

4. Be Intrusive

Explain to your child that you will be checking their phone and social media presence. Check their social media comments and posts every few days, which will keep them on their toes and will allow you to see how their relationships are evolving. That type of attention should enable you to ferret out any problems with followers or new “friends” quickly and before trouble takes hold.

5. Stay Current

We hear over and over again after tragedies that parents weren’t aware of certain apps or their child’s social media presence. It can be like a part-time job trying to keep up with all the latest technology, but it’s a must. Read about new apps, ask other parents, or reach out to your 20-something year old nieces and nephews for advice.

6. Don't Give Them Too Much Space

We want to give our teens their space. They need to be able to make decisions on their own and have privacy. But you wouldn’t allow a stranger into your home and into your child’s room alone, would you? That’s what social media does — it allows strangers into our kids’ lives, and our children will attach a great deal of importance and credibility to those virtual relationships, despite the fact that they don’t know these people very well. Those strangers might even convince children to do things that are very detrimental. If you don’t give your kids unfettered social media freedom, it will eliminate many of these problems. 

7. Recognize Warning Signs

Our kids live under our roof and we know them better than anyone. We need to pay close attention to their behavior, body language, and words. If something seems amiss, ask about it. Any number of things could be upsetting them, but as teenagers, it probably has something to do with their interpersonal relationships and more often than not, those relationships play out in the background of social media.

How do you monitor your child's social media presence? Share with us!

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