Making Safe Connections: Foster Teens and Social Media

Social media is just about everywhere. It’s in most ads, the products you buy, your TV screen, your computer – it’s even in your pocket. For those looking to link up with friends, relatives and peers, this is fantastic news. Connections are made easier than ever and long distance bonds aren’t as fragile as they were in the past. But for foster parents, who are first and foremost in charge of protecting their children from harm and providing for their basic needs, social media can present a difficult challenge.

Foster teens and social media.

On the one hand we can see that anonymity protects foster children from harm and that social media compromises anonymity. On the other, we understand that socializing is a basic need and that social media has become an integral part of how children and teens socialize. So how’s a foster parent to walk this fine line? With delicate, well-informed steps and with the child’s safety always in mind.

Foster Teens and Social Media: What Are the Upsides?

Socializing is indeed a basic need, and social media is a powerful tool that addresses this need. It can help a foster youth maintain connections to the friends and role models she makes as she moves through placements or returns to her biological parents’ care. It can lessen the pain of separation from siblings who may have been placed elsewhere.

Social media platforms can become arenas where foster youth seek out support, too – from fellow foster youth and other children and teens dealing with separation, anxiety, loss and depression, or even just fans of the same TV show, sport or hobby. Knowing that there are other people in the world who share her experience will go a long way toward showing your foster youth that her negative emotions are not always symptoms of innate problems or reasons to be ashamed. On the contrary, they can be valid responses to traumatizing environments and situations. Social media sites will allow your foster youth to express those feelings to others who can empathize and understand them.

Since no child can thrive in isolation – especially foster youth who often have histories of separation, and loss – using social media can be an easy way to maintain positive relationships and connections that help balance emotional health.

Foster Teens and Social Media: What Are the Dangers?

Of course, social media makes it just as easy to maintain negative relationships and connections. Children and teens learn through experimentation and testing the limits of what’s acceptable. In many cases, this can unexpectedly land them in toxic relationships where short term benefits – for example, trying to fit in by smoking a cigarette or giving in to unwanted sexual advances – can come at the cost of long term ones like physical and emotional health.

Removing your foster teen from these types of situations is no longer enough to protect her from the damage they can cause. With so many new technological avenues to choose from, she can just as easily chat with her toxic boyfriend or deceitful classmate from the comfort of her bedroom.

Foster Teens and Social Media: No Simple Solution

The truth is that it’s nearly impossible to keep a 24/7 watch over your foster youth and her social media use, and that’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with allowing her to make decisions about how she socializes so long as she’s aware of the consequences, she’s never in serious danger and you’re always available to help. Here are a few ways you can increase the likelihood that your foster child is using social media responsibly:

  • Help your child or teen understand that posting on social media is the virtual equivalent of speaking in front of an auditorium of onlookers. That’s a powerful position – and with great power comes great responsibility.
  • Make the auditorium of onlookers a bit less imposing with privacy settings. Limiting how your foster child can be found, who she can interact with and what she can see are all important aspects of responsible use.
  • When possible, monitor usage. Keeping computers in a common family area is one way to do this. Making accounts of your own is another.
  • Set house rules. They’ll probably vary depending on the youth’s age, experience with social media and degree of responsibility.
  • Limit access. Studies show that spending too much time on social media can have an adverse effect on self-esteem. Just enough can have the opposite effect.
  • Help your child understand cyberbullying. It’s not ok to be the victim or the perpetrator of this new phenomenon.
  • Understand that mistakes will happen. Each one is a learning opportunity. Put your heads together and figure out how to move forward.
  • When in doubt, talk to your caseworker.

The most important step toward responsible use is understanding how powerful of a tool social media can be. Help your foster teen understand that, while they can be fun and therapeutic, actions on social media sites, just like real life actions, can leave a lasting impression. It’s up to her to decide what sort of impression that will be.

One thought on “Making Safe Connections: Foster Teens and Social Media

  1. Here are some suggestions for foster youth:

    1) Don’t accept there 100% anonymity online. It isn’t possible to guarantee this.

    2) Foster and adopted youth need to know the accurate version of their life story before using social media. This should be told in an age appropriate way but not be “rose tinted”. They should understand the struggles their parents faced and why they are in care, and that it is often the adults fault and not their fault.

    3) The youth need to understand that using social media may reduce the anonymity and contact controls that child protective services have imposed. Forcing mediated letterbox contact till adulthood will be near impossible after one has made social media contact with a birth relative. If one has exchanged phone numbers or addresses, this can make unsupervised visits possible and they can be initiated by either the child or birth relative.

    4) If a foster or adopted youth decides to use social media, they need to accept that they could be found by their birth relatives, former friends, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, or other relatives. Once they have friended one of these people, they will no longer be hidden by CPS, and this can lead to their contact info or new name being passed on to other relatives in the family. The child needs to be prepared for this possibility. They can use privacy settings to reduce this, but there is no guarantee that they will not be found.

    5) Children who are adopted should be told they are adopted by age 11. CPS should not falsely tell a child that a sibling has died when they have not. In fact, it is better for kids to know the truth than be lied to at a younger age.

    6) The child and their foster or adoptive parents should know what recourses they have when contact with someone becomes unwanted and it is made online. Some of these remedies may include changing their privacy settings, blocking that person online, deleting their social media profile, changing their phone number or e-mail address, getting a restraining order, moving, and others.

    7) Foster and Adoptive parents should realize that communication online will not be censored, monitored by a social worker, or forwarded to CPS before it is sent to the other person online. Many social media companies use their own servers and are privately owned, meaning that a court order would be needed to access these servers. Plus, these companies are not parties to the original foster or adoption placing agreement and not under the same privacy rules.

    8) Remember, once you have shared information online with someone, you cannot take it back. Such shared info could be stored or entire the persons long term memory.

    9) Foster care agencies, courts, and adoption agencies should not make agreements that guarantee confidentiality, or cover up the truth till 18, 21, or any age anymore. It may be possible to cut off contact partially till maybe age 11 or so, but this level of “adult control” will wane with the following:

    * Child’s ability to remember information from their past (including the names of previous family or friends)

    * Child’s level of computer skills

    * Child’s level of rebelliousness

    * Child’s presence on media (social media, online, TV, radio, etc)

    10) It is a good idea to role play what can happen if one makes contact with a birth relative before it happens. For example, role play how they would feel if one of their relatives was a criminal, a sex offender, someone poor who could not afford to care for them, a parent with a severe disability, etc. This may help the child understand better who is safe to contact and who is not.

    11) Each case of a foster or adopted child making contact with someone they were not supposed to contact online is going to have to be dealt with in on a case by case basis. One will have to evaluate:

    * Is that person still a risk to the child?

    * Is the newly developed relationship going good or bad for the child?

    * Does the child want to end the relationship or let it continue from that point forward?

    * What was the reason the child was separated from this person in the first place?

    Remember, sometimes it is not needed to sever an entire family from contact for the bad acts of one member.

    12) It is best if foster or adoptive parents act as consultants to help their child develop newly formed relationships with birth family members or siblings. Persons should also see what supports are offered through their agencies for this as well, such as counseling or post-adoption support.

    13) When a child discovers “the truth” about why they are in care or that they are adopted through Facebook or another social media platform, it is best not to try to cover up the truth, but instead explain the missing chapters of their life story immediately.

    14) Realize that some children may access the internet other places besides home, or search in secret. This can include friends houses, schools, libraries, smart phones, public Wi-Fi connections at coffee shops, stores, or many other public places.

    15) Foster care agencies should not ban social media or photography, and instead they should let the foster parent and child make this decision wisely. Social media can be used responsibly by foster and adopted children.

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