As Rancho Santa Margarita Police Services’ Child Safety Deputy, I teach an Internet Safety class to the middle and high school students in Rancho Santa Margarita. I start all of my classes in the same way, it goes something like this:

“Who has a social media account, like Instagram or Twitter, with at least 100 friends or followers?” Almost every hand in the classroom goes up. I then say, “If this applies to you, keep your hand up…I have 200 followers, 300, 400, 500 (a few hands go down), 600, 700, and a few more drop. I lose most of the class around 900, but I have a few hangers on in the thousands. “Who are these people?” I ask them. “Do you know who they are?” All I get is nervous giggling as a reply. Why do our children need to have so many followers, and is it safe?

The answers to why they need so many followers on social media sites like Instagram, are both simple and complicated. It’s a popularity contest. Having the most, or at least a respectable follower count, tells the child and her friends that she is “popular.” Now, here is the real reason: it’s addicting. When a child posts a comment or “selfie,” they can get hundreds or thousands of responses, usually in the affirmative. They feel important. He or she thinks, “Hundreds of people listen to me, and I am important.”

Now, is it safe? The answer is no. You don’t have to look too far to find a news story about a teen being molested by a person they met online. Remember Dateline’s To Catch a Predator? A 2012 Pew Research survey of teens, ages 12 to 17, found that 92% post their real name to the profile they use most often. 84% post their interests, such as movies, music, or books they like. 82% post their birth date. 62% post their relationship status. 24% post videos of themselves and routinely “check in” at locations. Our children are sharing intimate, personal information to complete strangers.

Parents can help keep their kids safe by following these three guidelines:

1) Review your child’s friend or followers list. Ask your child who these people are. If they are not a person that they have a face-to-face relationship with, you may want to consider removing them from your child’s account.
2) Talk to your child about what is and is not appropriate information to share online. Use an Internet Safety Contract with your kids (available online at many child safety website s) to clearly define your expectations.
3) Monitor your child’s social media account. Be your child’s Instagram follower. Take part in their world and have a continuing conversation about what happens online.

A number of presentations are put on throughout the year promoting increased parental awareness of internet predators and the dangers of social media bullying.