The Internet has forever changed the way we find and share information. Sometimes, it can feel like a full-time job just to keep up with new websites, applications and online trends.  Computers, tablets, phones, gaming devices and even televisions put the web constantly in reach. In recent years, the explosion of social media and its growing number of platforms have assumed even greater prominence as forums for people to connect online.

For parents, questions surrounding children and social media, such as when to encourage participation versus where to set limits, can be daunting. Computer games are moving online and becoming social due to chat features and discussion boards. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Vine, and Instagram - to name just a few - offer different opportunities to interact with friends, family or strangers - and each comes with its own risks.

The key is to find balance. How does a parent embrace the benefits that social media can offer children and teens, while ensuring that healthy limits are in place? And perhaps more importantly, how do you protect your kids from those who may have predatory intentions?

These important questions require serious consideration because one fact is clear: social media is not going away. In fact, according to data from the company itself, Facebook now boasts 1.19 billion monthly active users. Meanwhile, Twitter has nearly 650 million total feeds. These figures show the staggering reach that just two social media networks currently possess.

According to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, 93 percent of U.S. teens between the ages of 12 and 17 use the Internet regularly, with more than 70 percent using it to access social networking sites.

While this data may seem overwhelming to some parents, it's important to remember that today's young people have grown up in a world where the Internet has always existed. Participating in social media is almost second nature for them, thus understanding the risks that social media can pose (and taking the proper precautions) is paramount.

Minimizing the Risks

The greatest potential risk involved with using social media is the sharing of personal information. Young people may not be aware that sharing sensitive details, such as their home address or daily routine, can put them at risk. Additionally, whatever information they share online is available for everyone to see, including school officials and police. Photographs of illegal activities could lead to serious, real world consequences. Social media can also leave young people open to harassment from others. Bullying is a serious issue, and interacting with the wrong online crowd can make the problem more severe.

Additionally, studies show that middle school, high school and college students who used Facebook even once during a 15-minute study break obtained lower grades. Meanwhile, new research has suggested a link between overuse of media and technology and an increase in anxiety and depression.

Maximizing the Benefits

On the other hand, using social media can provide many positives. As its name implies, social media can help young people learn to socialize, building the necessary skills that come with interacting with other people. Because written messages are more apt to be misunderstood than verbal communication, children have the opportunity to learn to write with precision and clarity, especially when faced with character limits.

It also helps young people foster independence and self-expression. Self-produced how-to videos on YouTube are a popular past-time, allowing teens to share skills and learn new ones.

Many extended families have members scattered across the country or the globe. Grandparents can shrink that distance by following their grandchildren's lives on Facebook. Parents can also gain insight into what is going on in their children's offline lives by following them on social media.

Finding Balance

The key for parents is finding a middle ground that will result in responsible social media use. One idea is for parents to create a contract between themselves and their children. While the terms may differ depending on the age of the child, there are certain guidelines that can apply to every young person.

  • First and foremost, safety should be a primary concern. Tell your children to refrain from giving out personal information or agreeing to meet someone in person that they've met online.
  • Good online behavior is also critical. The way young people portray themselves can come back to haunt them in real life. Documentation of bad behavior will have major consequences, at school or on the job. Young people should understand that they should never do something online they wouldn't do in person.
  • Parents should be aware of all of the social spheres where a child participates. Computer games and tutoring sites may have age appropriate content, but strangers sending chat messages may not abide by those standards. Overuse is also an issue that should be addressed. Coming up with a suitable limit for how much time a young person can spend online is a good idea, as this can help cut down on distractions that may take away from other areas of life, such as schoolwork.
  • Open channels of communication are essential. Even with every safeguard in place, there is always the possibility that children will be confronted with situations that call for parental action. Providing guidance on what to do when others are out of line can keep unpleasant incidents from becoming more serious.