Online Safety for Youth in Foster Care
Last updated: July 26, 2023, at 2:02 p.m. PT
Originally published: July 21, 2023, at 4:07 p.m. PT
Social media and the internet have become integral to our lives, especially for children and teenagers. And according to the U.S. Surgeon General's new mental health advisory, social media is used by up to 95 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds, with more than a third claiming constant use. For a foster parent, balancing the good and bad regarding screen time and social media can be hard.
Whether you're a current foster parent or thinking of fostering, it's essential to be aware, and if you are fostering, take appropriate measures to protect children online by establishing trust and open communication, setting clear boundaries, implementing effective monitoring, and seeking further support.
"The most common question parents ask me is, 'Is social media safe for my kids.' The answer is that 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 U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.
Excessive use can lead to cyberbullying, online predators, exposure to inappropriate content, and an increased sense of loneliness or lowered mental health. Research from the study shows that spending more than three hours per day on social media leads to double the risk of poor mental health outcomes for teens, such as symptoms of depression and anxiety. In 2021, teens, on average, spent three-and-a-half hours a day on social media. Coupling this information with the U.S. Surgeon General's report on increased loneliness, we know that our youth and young adults also spend far less time engaging in person with their friends (from 150 minutes in 2003 to 40 minutes per day in 2020).
Now, to be clear, not all social media is bad. In fact, social media harm really depends on its usage, according to the advisory. Social media can empower youth to stay connected with friends and family. Plus, its use can also vary based on cultural, historical, socio-economic, and ability. Families and kids far apart can stay in touch, cross language barriers, and access educational content that may not be available within our school systems. For foster kids, all those benefits can mean a whole lot. According to the advisory, 58% of teens, in general, have reported feeling more accepted, 67% say they have people who can support them through tough times, 71% have a place to show their creative side, and 80% state feeling more connected to their friends. These are all great things. So, how do we tackle the negative ramifications of social media?
Establishing Trust and Open Communication
Approach online safety as a collaborative effort rather than a power struggle, laying the foundation of trust and communication necessary to keep them safe online by:
Encouraging them to share online experiences, concerns, and any issues they encounter without judgment or fear of repercussions
Engaging in open discussions about responsible internet use, respecting their privacy while maintaining appropriate boundaries, and encouraging them to seek a trusted adult's guidance if they encounter any issues online
Setting Clear Boundaries
When a youth is placed in one of our Y homes, a case manager will meet with them and their caregivers to create a safety and supervision plan that meets their individual needs and establishes online guidelines and boundaries. Ensure they understand these boundaries and the consequences of breaching them, then continue to:
Discuss appropriate behavior, privacy settings, and the importance of protecting personal information online and reporting inappropriate content. And how to help their friends stay safe, too!
Understand any apps, online video games, movies, and tv shows they engage with.
Consider limiting screen time by co-creating with the youth a list of boundaries for social media that also allows you to check their social media accounts and grants you access to their passwords in specific situations. Try encouraging them to set their own off-screen times and monitor their usage in the last week.
Establish tech-free zones that encourage spaces for in-person relationships and connection.
Educate them about online privacy, security, the potential dangers of interacting with strangers online, and the importance of thinking critically and questioning the authenticity of information.
Model the behavior. These tips and tricks are great for you too! And modeling the behavior will help reinforce the practice with your youth.
Implementing Effective Monitoring
When you work with the Y, your case manager and licensor can help navigate different appropriate tools to monitor online activity. With kids in foster care particularly vulnerable to exploitation, including commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, it is crucial to monitor their online activity proactively. Steps to take include:
Staying in the loop with popular social media platforms (like Tik Tok, Snapchat, and Instagram) and familiarizing yourself with their features, privacy settings, and potential risks
Using this helpful tool to determine if the content is both developmentally appropriate and trauma-informed. It will check if a TV show, movie, book, online game, app, or even YouTube channel is appropriate. There is a helpful 'Parents Need to Know' section that shares relevant details. Be especially mindful of themes of violence, as they can be especially triggering for youth in foster care
Working with your internet provider to block content at the network level and avoid power struggles with youth
Seeking Further Support
The Y's Foster Parenting program offers a lot of support through case managers and licensors. We also have a great foster parent support group that meets monthly! Networking with other foster parents can provide valuable insights and support. Y case managers can help problem solve, and your Y licensor can help you explore and navigate what parental controls are appropriate.
If you're interested in becoming a foster parent or advocating for kids in foster care, subscribe to our monthly newsletter or reach out to our team by filling in this simple form.