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A girl uses her smart phone as apps are shown on an iPad in Mississauga, Ont., on Nov. 13, 2017.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Social media has become crucial to how many of us interact with others, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. With schools disrupted for much of the last few years, the most consistent connection many kids have found with their friends has taken place online.

But if you’re sending your child back to school with a cellphone this fall, especially if it’s for the first time, there’s more they’ll need to know to be set up for success.

Anyone can accidentally let endless scrolling impact their productivity or fall victim to scammers that hack their accounts, but learning good social-media habits early on can help your child navigate the complexities of growing up online. Even the most avid social-media users can benefit from becoming more informed on their technology use and digital footprint.

Here’s some tips for how your child can strengthen their digital security, improve their productivity and forge a healthier relationship with social media.

Apps for staying focused

One minute you’re turning on your computer to tackle a big assignment, and the next you’re knee-deep in your feed watching a video of a baby turtle hatching. It’s happened to everyone – but how can you help your child shut out distractions when they need it the most?

If they need the occasional gentle nudge to stay on task, try the Mindful Browsing app, which sends a pop-up reminder about their set goals and priorities when they visit sites that lower productivity. This is easy to install alongside your child, so you can both agree on the sites they will be mindful about spending their time on.

MyAnalytics through Microsoft will analyze their work habits and time allocation to help both of you understand how they’re spending their time online. It lays out a full breakdown of minutes spent scrolling through social media or other sites used to procrastinate, helping your student take responsibility for motivating themselves to cut down on distractions. Tools such as desktop Stickies and Google Keep help to ensure important tasks and priorities are top of mind.

You can find more tools for staying focused and organized in The Globe and Mail’s comprehensive guide to some of the best productivity apps for working online, as recommended by eight business leaders.

Tips for online privacy basics

It helps to be mindful about what you share online. When your child is considering a potential post, they should think about what someone could learn about them from their feed and potentially use for their own benefit.

Are they itching to post a photo of their open passport as they set out on an adventure, or their new student ID? Make sure there’s no identifying details visible in the shot, including their license plate, identification numbers, home address (or any clues that could point someone to where you live) or birth date. This information could potentially enable someone to find where your child lives or steal their identity.

If you or your child want more peace of mind about who is viewing their posts, they can adjust their account settings so their profile is viewable only to friends.

But social-media and retail companies don’t need to scroll your kid’s feed to gain information about them. Facebook, Instagram and Google track and collect personal information to build a list of ad topics with which to target users.

Curious about how much of your child’s information these companies have? You can download your data from Facebook and Google and take steps to remove existing ad tracking and curb the site’s ability to gain access to more of your data in the future.

To download their Facebook data:

  • Find “settings” under your profile, then navigate to “your Facebook information” in the left column.
  • From there, you should see a button to request a download your data.
  • You can adjust your ad settings under that option and see what personalized ads Facebook has set for you based on your activity.

Google has a web page that walks you through downloading data connected to your account.

A good way to stay aware of what you’re getting into when using websites and online services is reading the terms and conditions – or, more realistically, a summarized version available through the website Terms of Service; Didn’t Read that highlights key points.

How to set time to disconnect

Taking intentional breaks from screens, especially as part of their nighttime routine, can have positive effects on your kid’s health.

Studies have found that cutting back on social-media use has been linked with improvements in depression, anxiety and overall well-being. This can be especially significant at bedtime, as experts say technology is a major barrier to sleep.

Instead of spending the last part of their night before they doze off mindlessly scrolling on their phone, a more intentional and screen-free ritual can help your child achieve a better night of rest.

If your child struggles to remind themselves to put down their phone before bed (and you’re sick of reminding them), iPhone users can set their ideal bedtime and wake up in the Health app on their phone to receive reminders when it’s time to wind down.

How to protect your accounts from getting hacked

It’s no longer enough to simply refrain from clicking on suspicious links forwarded in chain emails from your protecting yourself from online attacks now takes strong passwords, two-factor authentication and a healthy dose of skepticism for anyone online who asks you to invest in cryptocurrency.

The best way to keep your child’s (and your!) accounts safe from hackers is for them to update and strengthen their passwords (ideally with a unique code at least six digits comprised of letters, numbers, and symbols), set up their phone number or e-mail for two-party authentication and not allow access to third-party apps.

If their account has already been hacked, it’s best to reach out to the platform’s help desk for assistance. But if there’s been a malware infection, there may not be much users can do to recover from the cyber attack.

Learn more from writer Mahdis Habibinia about why social-media accounts are vulnerable to these attacks, why digital investments are often used in scams and how to report a hacked account.

Know what you’re seeing might not be real

Social media is full of misinformation. But one of the most insidious ways misinformation can permeate online is through influencers’ use of photo shop, filters and misleading poses to create a false perception of their bodies that might in reality be unattainable.

But some Gen Z content creators are beginning to push back owing to the negative effects they say this practice can have on their audience’s body image and mental health. Instead, they post photos and videos celebrating their bodies and normalizing curves, weights and bellies that might fall outside conventional beauty standards.

Beware of common photoshopping apps, such as Facetune, which makes it easy for teens to digitally alter their bodies in photos.

It can help to talk to your child about the photos they’re seeing online, and the telltale signs of photoshopped images: unnatural shadows, distorted objects in the background and unattainable body proportions. If they’re aware of the harm photoshopped images can have on themselves and their peers, they might be inclined to join the growing number of Gen Z creators online who are choosing to project more healthy, realistic portrayals of body image.