If you’re like most parents, social media can be an intimidating reality to deal with while parenting our kids. Ongoing news about the dangers of teens and social media (bullying, explicit content, repeat abduction occasionally resulting in tragic death or murder), keeps us asking: How much should I let my kids experiment with social media? Should I spy on them? What can I do to make sure things stay respectful, tasteful and safe?

The world of social media is constantly changing and not going to disappear anytime soon. Here’s what you need to know, and what can try to maintain control, right now:

  1. The parent keeps the passwords. Since we parents are most likely paying for our child’s phone or device, social media expert Ciaran Blumenfeld, founder & CEO of Hashtracking.com, suggests parents maintain the master account for all app, music and other purchases in order to see and review all tech downloads to maintain some control. Blumenfeld offers: “As tempting as it is to give them a separate account, once you do, you lose visibility. Look out for texting apps and secret photo/photo hiding apps. If parents pay the bills, parents have passwords to everything on the phone. It doesn’t mean I will disrespect your privacy and look, but it means I could and might at any time!” What are the most popular apps that teens are using? Yikyak, Kik Messenger, After School, Snapchat, Instagram, Whatsapp, Whisper. Ask.fm, Vine, Tumblr. Of course there are more, but these currently rank at the top. Also, set hard rules and time limits for when kids can have access to their phones; no good comes from a kid having a phone in their room overnight and no good things happen online after 10 p.m., period.
  2. Follow your kids and their friends online. As appropriate with any topic that falls under the parenting umbrella, don’t hesitate to talk to kids about what they are downloading, how they use their apps and how social media makes them and their friends feel. (Happy? Sad? Scared? Disappointed?) Also, consider following your kids and their friends quietly on social media, resist commenting or liking, but just watch. If you see something that disturbs you, talk about it privately. The digital age is new to everyone, and parents and teens must have ongoing conversations about what’s not OK (sexual innuendo, curse words, nudity, cruelty, anything that embarrasses another person). Just as parents guide children to be good citizens of the community, guide them to be good digital citizens as well. Also, consider creating another account under a fake name with a vague, hip picture so you can follow your kids without them knowing.
  3. Start young. For parents of preschool and elementary-age kids, start your digital awareness, education and monitoring of content while your kids are young. Learning how the digital world works is a learning curve (it takes time and practice!) and parents must be literate to keep pace with technology as we raise our kids. Once a young child accidentally sees something inappropriate while scrolling videos on YouTube, they can’t then un-see it. Opt to access and implement wireless parental control software on your home computers. Net Nannyoffers custom blocking/filtering, helps parents manage their child’s experiences by giving them visibility and control and also allows parents to monitor their child’s friends, pictures and activities on Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn. Net Nanny continues to rank at the top of a variety of consumer reports.

Jill Simonian is a Parenting Lifestyle Expert and appears every Wednesday on CBS Los Angeles’ 5pm News. Her personal blog is TheFabMom.com.