Keeping children safe online has been front of mind for parents, educators, and lawmakers for the past few years. Earlier this year, the United States Surgeon General released a Surgeon General’s Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health: “We don’t have enough evidence to say it’s safe, and in fact, there is growing evidence that social media use is associated with harm to young people’s mental health,” said Dr. Vivek Murthy. DIagnosing exactly what that mental health harm is, and how to fix it, has proven challenging. 

The existing Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires parental consent for the collection of personal information from children under 13 years of age, functionally banning children from using social media. This doesn’t mean that children under the age of 13 aren’t using those apps and websites, since it’s relatively easy to bypass the age restriction, especially if parents aren’t monitoring internet use and app downloads.

Many policymakers don’t believe COPPA is effective enough, and are concerned about age verification on social media platforms and whether they adequately protect children’s privacy and prevent their access to age-inappropriate content. It’s practically impossible to keep track of the different social media bills introduced in state chambers and at the federal level to improve safety, most of which never become law. 

Utah was actually able to pass two social media laws this year, one to prohibit kids under 18 from using social media between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., and another that requires age verification for anyone who wants to use social media in the state. However, it’s a bit unclear how the state plans to enforce these new regulations or catch lawbreakers when the laws go into effect in 2024. Ohio lawmakers are presently considering a similar proposal

These social media laws likely won’t have a severe effect on how children use the internet. Although they wouldn’t be able to make a profile, they can still view content anonymously and directly text one another, maintaining that instant communication. The interconnectivity that the internet and phones gave us won’t be eliminated for children under any current proposal or law unless a parent physically takes away a cell phone or installs a blocking tool.

Fortunately, there are many options for managing children’s time online, and the market for similar products will only improve. For example:

  • Parental Control Software: Parental control software allows parents to monitor and restrict their children’s online activities. These tools typically offer features such as content filtering, time limits, and activity monitoring. Examples of popular parental control software include Norton Family, Kaspersky Safe Kids, and Qustodio.
  • Social Media Privacy Settings: Most social media platforms have built-in privacy settings that allow users to control who can see their posts and interact with them. Meta, the company that owns Instagram and Facebook, just announced a new suite of parental control tools this month, making it more likely that other brands will follow their lead.
  • Parental Monitoring Apps: There are various smartphone apps available that allow parents to monitor their child’s smartphone usage, including social media activities. These apps can provide insights into the apps used and websites visited, and they even capture text messages or social media posts. Examples include mSpy, Bark, and Mobicip.

There are many tools at hand and it’s time we engage parents with options for navigating this online, new world. Another practical way to keep kids safe online without waiting for the government to intervene is for schools to host parent education seminars. Teachers can give a light overview of problems they’ve observed with social media and smartphones, and identify some practical means of mitigating unchecked communications and bad habits. Parents don’t have to tackle this issue alone.