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What to do to protect your child on social media

There are apps you can download and settings you can adjust to take control.

ST. LOUIS — It's a tough question every parent faces: at what age should I allow my child to have a smartphone?

The reality is, more than 50% of kids in the U.S. have one by the age of 11. There are things parents can do to be prepared to deal with the technology, including cyberbullying.

Over the last month, 5 On Your Side has spoken to suicide experts.

"Social media is not the best place for kiddos in my opinion," said UMSL psychology professor Chelsey Wilks.

We spoke to a teen who contemplated suicide.

"It was like a never-ending void of darkness," said 14-year-old Ashira Appling, who transferred out of the Fox C-6 School District.

A Eureka mother who lost her son to suicide shared her heartbreaking story in order to bring awareness to bullying.

"People say, ‘Oh you're living my worst nightmare,’ no honey I can’t wake up from this," cried Sheila Mueller.

School leaders from the Rockwood and Jennings school districts told 5 On Your Side America's mental health crisis needs to be faced head on.

"The monster is in front of us and we have nowhere to hide,” said Dr. Terry Harris, executive director of student services for the Rockwood School District.

"I've never seen it this bad honestly," said Tina Meier.

Meier has traveled to hundreds of schools over the last 15 years hoping to spread awareness about the dangers of social media. Her daughter Megan took her life in 2006 after being cyberbullied.

Meier said the pandemic pushed kids' mental health to the brink.

"The pandemic was tough with kids being at home and now the only connection that they had many times was social media and it’s not always positive," she explained.

Here's what parents can do to keep their kids safe on social media:

  • Understand how social apps such as Snapchat work. The more informed you are, the better prepared you can be.
  • Start the conversation with your kids about cyberbullying. What it is and what to do if they see it or become a target.
  • Monitor your children's accounts. You can do this by setting time limits in their phone settings.

"You can setup a pass code and restrict how much time they can spend on particular apps,” Tech expert Mark Watson said.

There’s also parental control software you can install. The top three in the industry are Norton Family Parental Control, Kaspersky and Net Nanny.

Bark is another parental control app.

"This can go even deeper to monitor text messages, emails and photos and it can be looking out for sexual content or bullying in text messages. It can give you a notification if it notices any of those things," explained Watson.

Meier said the best thing parents, teachers and caregivers can do is continue to have conversations.

"For me, if we can keep this going and keep them talking about it and discussing and having those supports there then you have a chance to make a difference," explained Meier.

Here are the signs you should look out for that your child might be getting cyberbullied:

  • Abnormal changes in mood or behavior.
  • Avoidance of friends, activity or school.
  • Sudden aversion to using a phone or computer.
  • Extreme sleeping behaviors.

The suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255 and will change to 988 in July to make it easier to access.

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