If you’re a parent, hopefully you have heard of the Momo Challenge by now. It’s a dangerous “suicide game” that targets children on social media. Some say it’s just the latest internet hoax while others argue it is in fact very real. Either way: it’s an important reminder that parents need to stay on top of their children’s online and social media activity. As a mom of teens I am constantly taking my kids phones to see what they are up to. I check their social media, email, texts and photos to make sure they are navigating the world properly. It is hard even as adults yet we expect our kids to do it. I tell them until they pay for the phone, it is my phone so don't be surprised when I pick it up.
Vinay Saranga M.D., a child psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry, offers this advice for parents:
- Keep an eye on what your kids see online: When today’s parents were growing up, the only strangers and dangers they had to watch out for were those in front of them. Social media and the internet are a whole other world and parents needs to be vigilant about what their children are looking at, who they are talking to and what they are doing online. Limit what your kids do on their mobile devices and insist that they only engage on larger screens that you can easily see.
- You have to enquire: Even if your children are well-behaved or you think of them as the perfect kids who would never get into trouble, you still have to talk to them. Don’t just assume everything is okay or that they aren’t engaging in anything dangerous. You need to be the one to bring it up at the dinner table and educate them about staying safe in today’s online world. Ask them who their online friends are, what games they are playing, what they are viewing, etc.
- Teaching common sense: It is the job of every parent to instill basic common sense into their children. Let them know that if they encounter something like the Momo Challenge, it is fake, they should tell you about it, close the page or take a screenshot and report it to the police or proper authorities. Teaching kids how to spot danger, scams and other bad things is a lesson they can carry with them for life.
- Do a mental health check: Just as you would keep an eye on your kid’s physical health, all parents need to stay on top of their children’s mental health. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from the Momo Challenge, the online world is not all fun and games. Childhood anxiety, depression and online bullying are very real issues these days and must be addressed promptly and properly. Teach your teenagers that if they encounter a friend or classmate who is suicidal, to report it immediately or to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
- Check privacy settings: As parents, you can control the privacy settings on your children’s devices. Make sure they are set to the strictest levels. Don’t forget to check the settings on all phones, computers and tablets. In addition to the actual devices, remember that many social media platforms also have their own set of privacy settings that you can control as well. There are also standalone software products that can help keep your kids stay safe online.
- Age appropriate guidelines vary: There are all different guidelines for when kids should be allowed to dive into social media and the online world. The best advice is to take it on a case-by-case basis. Generally speaking, the longer parents can delay, the better, as this gives your kids more time to mature. Keep in mind that your 10-year-old might just be more mentally mature than the 12-year-old down the street.
- Watch the time: Just as you would limit how much TV time your kids get, parents must limit the amount of computer or online time their kids get, too. Encourage your kids to engage more in physical activity, more in-person playtime with friends, sports, books and educational activities. Online and social media time should be limited and reserved for when everything else is done or as an extra special treat.