How to be safe on social media: Tips from an expert

The real world and the digital world may feel like different places, but they are very much the same—and actions taken online carry real-life consequences. That was the key takeaway from a presentation by cyber safety expert Clayton Cranford, who spoke to students in Grades 4-8 about how to stay safe online.

Cranford, author of Parenting in the Digital World, is the nation's leading law enforcement educator on social media and online safety for children. He spoke to students October 17, then gave a presentation to parents later that night.

Cranford’s presentation to students was all about helping them make smart choices. He started with an example of a strange man sitting down with a group of students as they’re hanging out at the park. In real life, alarm bells would be ringing. The same should be true online. Cranford asked students to think about who follows them on social media or online gaming platforms, and cautioned them that you can’t always believe what people present in their profiles. He advised students to treat those spaces as their homes: If someone comes knocking at your door, who do you let in? Family and friends, not strangers.

Other pieces of advice:

  • Never post mean, rude, or threatening messages.
  • If you receive a mean message, don’t respond. Take a screenshot, share it with a trusted adult, and block and report the person.
  • Use your social media for good—celebrate a friend’s accomplishments or support a cause you believe in.

“Today you get one chance to make the right choice,” he said. “… Take the opportunity to do something you can be proud of.”

Speaking to parents, Cranford gave an overview of the relative safety of different social media platforms, including whether they have parental controls. “Social media is any electronic device that connects to the internet and another human being,” he said, noting that even the iPhone notes app is capable of sending secret messages.

He said parents should have conversations with their kids about social media and set safe boundaries for use, perhaps by drawing up a contract to establish expectations. Some additional tips included password protecting the app store; knowing the usernames and passwords of each account; charging your child’s device in your own room at night; and downloading the Bark app to help monitor device activity.

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