Absent legislation requiring social media companies to design their apps with child safety in mind, it falls to parents to protect their kids, experts say. And while it’s true that in-app safety settings are unlikely to eliminate systemic issues such as predatory online behavior or algorithms that surface harmful content, these settings are worth revisiting nonetheless.
On TikTok, for instance, a single toggle makes your teen’s personal videos ineligible for “stitches,” the video app’s version of a retweet, which often catapults videos in front of unintended audiences. On Instagram, teens can block all tags, mentions and direct messages from people they don’t follow.
These settings don’t affect what data a particular app collects about your child. But they do affect how much of your child’s online activity is visible to strangers and who can contact them. Of course, one of the best ways to minimize your child’s exposure to potentially harmful dynamics on social media is to wait until they’re a teenager to let them open an account.
As you review app settings, make sure it’s a two-way conversation. Ask your child what they enjoy about particular apps and what they encounter online. Let them share without fear of punishment. Social media interventions work best when teens feel involved: Try to be a coach rather than a referee.
Here are three important app settings you can review today.
Switch profiles to private
When your teen shares photos, videos or text from a public account, everyone can see — that includes college admissions officers, Grandma and AI companies scraping the internet for training data.
Private profiles, on the other hand, are only visible to people your teen has accepted as a friend or follower. This gives your teen more control over who can see their content (bye, mean girls) and removes the pressure of posting for the world to see.
Chat with your teen about the “digital footprint” their posts leave behind. How can they evaluate what they post to lessen the chances they’ll feel embarrassed by it later? If they get a friend request from someone they haven’t met in person, how can they assess whether it’s safe to share their posts with that person? Private profiles can block some unwanted eyeballs, but screenshots still exist.
Often, account privacy and other limits turn on by default if your child accurately reports their age during sign-up. Don’t take that for granted, though — plenty of young users lie about their age to skirt age-based limits or start an account before they turn 13. It’s worth taking a few minutes to review your teen’s birthday across their accounts. Find it in “settings” or “account.”
Limit contact from strangers
Most social media apps — including TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitch and Discord — have settings that limit who can send you direct messages. Setting DMs to “friends only” could shield your teen from scams, predators and bullying.
Talk with your teen about the DMs they receive. To get the conversation started, ask about the DMs their friends receive. Brainstorm together what can go wrong when strangers slide into their inbox. A 2021 study from University College London found that 75 percent of teen girls had received a picture of a penis in their direct messages, most often unsolicited.
Most apps refer to these notes as “messages.” On Twitch, you’ll toggle on “Block Whispers from Strangers.” On Discord, you can turn on “Safe Direct Messaging” and the app will scan DMs for explicit images.
On short-form video sites TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, “stitching” or “remixing” lets people use snippets of other users’ videos in their own content. For example, a creator might show a few seconds of a popular TikTok before stitching their own video commentary.
Stitching is how audiences discuss a video — for better or for worse. It could mean the difference between your teen’s TikTok video being viewed by a few dozen friends or a few million not-so-nice app users.
Ask your teen to show you some examples of stitched videos. How often is the attached commentary positive, versus negative or neutral? Decide together whether your teen wants to open themself to that type of exposure.
To change this setting on TikTok, go to “settings and privacy” -> “privacy” -> “stitch.” On Instagram, go to “sharing and remixes” to control how your teen’s content can spread. YouTube doesn’t allow short-form video creators to disable all remixes unless they have access to the “YouTube Studio Content Manager.” But your teen can disable remixes on individual shorts during the upload process.