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Did you gift your child a smartphone for Christmas?

Smartphones can simplify life with kids by helping children stay in touch with their parents, allowing parents to see their kids’ locations at any given time and giving kids the freedom they need and deserve as they get old enough to take on the responsibility of an iPhone or Android.

But smartphones and social media apps can also pose threats to children’s privacy, safety and mental health. Parents can take the following steps to mitigate those potential dangers:

1. Encourage open communication

Giving your child a smartphone with internet access will open somewhat uncomfortable — but important — topics of conversation, including how to deal with online predators, possible exposure to pornography, online scams, social media addiction, privacy and more. 

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A 12-year-old boy looks at an iPhone on Oct. 27, 2023, in Swansea, Wales.  (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

“Creating a space where kids feel comfortable to talk to their parents about what they’re exploring online, what they’re seeing, how they deal with certain situations, is so important,” Yaron Litwin, a digital safety expert at Canopy, an app that allows parents to combat harmful digital content on their kids’ phones, told Fox News Digital. “And many, many of our customers share that. One of the values that they’re getting out of the app is that it really creates this opportunity for communication.”

Parents are “notified if a child is on certain websites, and then they can have a conversation about perhaps why that’s not a good idea [to visit] those websites.” 

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Teen scrolling on phone

Giving your child a smartphone with internet access will open somewhat uncomfortable — but important — topics of conversation, including how to deal with online predators, possible exposure to pornography, online scams, social media addiction, privacy and more.  (iStock)

Parents should be open to discussing these topics with their children so that they do not feel the need to hide concerning information from their parents, Litwin said.

“A lot of inappropriate content today …  comes to you.”

— Yaron Litwin

“You’re not necessarily seeking it out,” Litwin said of discovering inappropriate content online. “And so … Canopy’s an enabler for that kind of positive parenting communication.”

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2. Check privacy settings

All smartphones have privacy settings that can be adjusted. Parents should help their children walk through their phone settings.

TikTok and Instagram

Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and other social media apps also have privacy settings that can be adjusted.  (Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Additionally, apps have separate privacy settings. Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and other social media apps also have privacy settings that can be adjusted. Parents can ensure their children’s accounts are not public by accessing profile settings on these apps and making sure they are set on private mode. A private account means users who want to follow another user’s activity must send that person a follow or friend request in order to do so.

In 2021, Apple required apps to ask iPhone users for permission to track their activity on apps. iPhone users can disable the tracking feature if they wish to do so in their settings.

3. Employ safety apps

Parents control or online safety apps including Canopy, Bark, Norton Family and others are effective tools adults can use to monitor kids’ smartphone usage and protect them against potential online threats.

“It’s super easy to use,” Litwin said of Canopy. “There’s … the Canopy app, which, in a parent-child scenario, would be downloaded onto the parent’s phone. This is more of a dashboard, kind of a control center. That’s where you can set up all the members of the family, customize your protection settings. And then once that’s set up, you download what we call our Shield app onto the device that you want to protect.”

Parents can set downtime hours, filtering of certain content children may be exposed to online, geolocation alerts and more.

“It really acts like an assistant in the background that’s providing the parent with monitoring [and] alerts that the parent can set up according to … the policies they would like to implement,” Litwin explained. 

Apps like Bark also provide parents with resources available online that give tips on how parents can discuss difficult topics surrounding internet safety with their children.

4. Stay informed about potential dangers

Understanding the dangers that exist with today’s technology is one important way parents can protect kids from potential threats to their safety and privacy online, according to Litwin.

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For example, federal and state authorities across the country have issued recent warnings about “sextortion” schemes, which are becoming increasingly popular on social media. The FBI defines sextortion as a “serious crime” in which perpetrators threaten to expose a victim’s sensitive or private information — including nude photos — in exchange for money or more sexually explicit material.

“The potential harm, especially as it relates to minors, is severe.”

— Former Snapchat employee

“We’ve seen thousands of reports this year,” a former Snapchat employee, who spoke on the condition on anonymity to protect his career, previously told Fox News Digital of sextortion schemes on the social media app. “But … the ratio of reported to not reported is pretty high. Probably less than 5% of this is actually reported.”

A girl lays on her bed with a phone in her hands

In order to protect kids from potential threats to their safety and privacy online, parents must first understand the dangers that exist with today’s technology.  (Ute Grabowsky/Photothek )

But sextortion is becoming more dangerous due to the rapid development and easy access to artificial intelligence (AI), according to Litwin.

Because of AI, a minor does not have to share an explicit image in order to be exploited and blackmailed in exchange for money or explicit material. Now, predators can take an innocent image and create it into something that looks explicit in order to intimidate a minor. It is for this reason that keeping children’s photos and other information private is more important than ever.

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“We know of the case of a young teenage boy that was in a group of kind of gym-goers and was sharing an innocent photo after a workout. And then someone, I guess in this large [online] community, was able to take it and manipulate it and turned it into a naked photo and then really went after this child trying to blackmail him,” Litwin said. “And it is just horrible. I mean, the impact on the child and the family … there’s actually been, unfortunately, a number of suicides as a result of this type of sextortion.”

“This is definitely a growing trend.”

— Yaron Litwin

Other examples of trends parents should be aware of are the prevalence of drug sales on social media apps; the different meanings behind certain emojis; how groomers and predators disguise themselves as teenagers online to befriend minors; and even more basic scams like phishing, which can lead to viruses on phones and computers.

5. Limit screen time

One of the best ways to encourage safe smartphone usage is to simply limit usage. Smartphones present dangers beyond kids’ privacy and safety; they can also pose a threat to youth mental health.

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Children between the ages of 8 and 10 spend an average of 6 hours a day in front of a screen, which includes television and computers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Children between the ages of 11 and 14 spend an average of 9 hours a day in front of a screen. Teens between the ages of 15 and 18 spend an average of seven-and-a-half hours a day in front of a screen. 

Girls on their phones at a concert

In March U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a new advisory to warn of a growing youth mental health crisis caused by social media. (Adam Berry/Redferns)

“There’s more and more proof out there that shows that it really can cause a number of kind of mental health risks for for young kids,” Litwin said of smartphones and social media.

Hundreds of school boards are currently involved in a 2022 lawsuit against TikTok for fueling what defendants describe as a youth mental health crisis in America.

“This is a problem that has been evolving over the past decade,” Maryland attorney Philip Federico, who is representing the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board, previously told Fox News Digital in an interview. “Because if you speak with the mental health counselors in these schools, and you speak with psychiatrists and psychologists who treat adolescents and children, they will tell you that over the course of the past 10 years, there has been a steady increase in mental health problems — self-image problems, anxiety problems, even suicide and suicide ideation. And you can see that line tracks very much with the increased use in social media by this same peer group.”

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The issue of youth social media addiction became exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, when some children were forced to learn remotely and spend more time online without moderation from teachers or counselors that they get from learning in-person.

In March U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a new advisory to warn of a growing youth mental health crisis caused by social media.

Monitoring and limiting daily screen time and encouraging children to take part in in-person activities is one of many ways to mitigate the risks social media poses to youth mental health.



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