Opinion: How social media apps can keep strangers away from kids | #socialmedia | #children

Instagram has announced it is taking steps to make it more difficult for strangers to contact teenagers through its app. A new feature will ban adults from sending direct messages to people under age 18 who don’t follow them. If an adult tries to do so, they’ll receive a notification explaining they can’t direct message the account.

A blogpost from Instagram’s parent company Facebook explains this is just one of the updates they are implementing in their efforts to “keep our youngest community members safe.”

If an adult is social media friends with a teenager, Instagram may prompt the teen to be cautious if they decide to have private messaging conversations. The safety notices will tell young people if an adult they are interacting with is exhibiting potentially suspicious behavior. For instance, if an adult is trying to send messages to a lot of people under 18, the young account holder will get a safety notification from Instagram. The notice gives teenagers the option of ending the conversation and then restricting, blocking or reporting the adult.

If kids really want to chat with adult strangers, they can always lie about their age when they sign up. But Instagram says it’s “developing new artificial intelligence and machine learning technology” to help apply these new safety features. The company hasn’t given any more information about how the new tech works, but says it will use it along with the age a user gives to help make interactions safer on the app.

After reading these features coming to Instagram, I was glad but also annoyed the company was placing all the onus on teenagers. If the app felt an adult was participating in potentially suspicious behavior, why wouldn’t it block or restrict the adult? The good news is that Instagram is taking action in that regard as well. In the coming weeks, if the company notices suspicious behavior, like an adult trying to interact will a lot of teenagers, it could take steps to make it more difficult for the adult to do so. Instagram may do things like restrict the adult from seeing teen accounts in ‘Suggested Users’ or could possibly hide their comments from public posts by young people.

While this is a step in the right direction from Instagram, do teen users of other social media apps have the same protections? While Instagram is teens’ second favorite social media platform, according to a recent survey from Piper Sandler, Snapchat is still on top and TikTok is at No. 3.

Snapchat makes it a little more difficult for strange adults to contact young people because the adult would need to know the teen’s username to send them a message. To make sure that doesn’t happen, young users should verify their settings are such that only friends can contact them directly or view their story.

TikTok offers a couple of ways to restrict who can send messages to a child’s account. If a parent has paired their account with their teenager’s (which I highly recommend), the parent can decide who can contact the child or whether to turn off direct messaging completely. Those over 16 can also control who can send them direct messages through their privacy and safety account settings. TikTok does not allow any private messaging for those under 16 years old.

It will be a lot easier to stop unknown adults from messaging teens by making sure their accounts are always set to private. TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram all allow the option of a public or private account. A private account will only allow those accepted as friends to see posts, photos and videos.

It’s understandable that some teens who are creators or athletes trying to gain a following for their career may desire to have a public account where everyone can see their content. If this is the case, parents should remember to have thoughtful conversations on a regular basis with their kids about potential dangers of direct messaging strangers.

A quick reminder too that for these three (and most) social media apps, users should be at least 13 years old.

As we try to help our kids navigate their online safety, look for a new parents guide coming soon to Instagram. It will include tips and conversation starters to help parents have meaningful discussions with their teens about life online.

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