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updated: 3/20/2014 6:13 AM

You found your child's secret social media account. Now what?

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  • Experts agree that parents must monitor their child's social media activity, not just for their safety, but for their professional future.

      Experts agree that parents must monitor their child's social media activity, not just for their safety, but for their professional future.

 
 

You think you're doing a good job of supervising your child's social media use, and then all of a sudden, you stumble upon it.

A secret social media account.

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The content might be innocent. But maybe it contains inappropriate photos and videos, mean comments or personal information.

Now what do you do? Force your child to delete the account? Take away their devices as punishment? Or shrug it off and give them a warning?

Social media policing is tricky territory for parents today. How they deal with their child's social media use varies by age, the child's personality and individual parenting styles.

But experts agree that parents must monitor their child's social media activity, not just for their safety, but for their professional future.

If a child creates a secret account, that's a breach of trust. But pediatrician and professor Dr. Don Shifrin said it can also signal emotional struggles, a need for self-expression or an attempt to conceal relationships with certain people or groups.

"(If you find a secret account), you have to have a serious discussion, much they way you would if you found a substance in their drawer while putting their socks away," said Shifrin, a speaker at the recent American Academy of Pediatrics' Healthy Children Conference & Expo in Rosemont.

"No matter how it's discussed, it must be discussed calmly," he added. "It's up to us to teach our youngsters about online life as well as offline life."

Many suburban school districts have made a big push to educate students on this topic. In Community Unit School District 200 in Wheaton, they focus on "digital citizenship" as well as "digital stewardship," said the district's Google and Cloud App Administrator Eric Slaughter.

He recommends to parents that they create a contract with their kids -- you provide the technology and Wi-Fi, and they provide you access to all accounts and passwords, and privacy settings that include you on every level. Then, violations of that contract come with consequences.

"You own the data plan, you can take it away," Slaughter said.

He encourages parents make their child read the first line of the contract out loud: "I am aware that nothing I do online is private and anything I post may be available for the whole world to see for the rest of my life."

Slaughter strongly recommends electronics only be used in public areas of the home -- not in bedrooms with doors closed.

While not foolproof, there are software and apps like eBlaster Mobile, that sends you copies of every text and photo taken from devices linked to your account, plus location-tracking.

Other good tips are to have children turn off their geo-locating settings on their social media accounts, and to know never to use their last names, identify their school or town, or give out personal information, like their cellphone numbers.

Slaughter says parents should read the parent guides on the social media sites they know their child uses. Children under the age of 13 can technically be banned from having accounts by the Child Online Privacy Act. So if you contact the administrator, they will take the account down.

The goal, however, should not be to keep your child off social media, but to build trust and independence so they will use it safely.

"Following your kids on social media is like chaperoning at the junior prom. You don't want to rush out onto the floor and say 'Get your hands off her!'" Shifrin said. "But you want them to know, 'I will be watching.'"

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