In social media slang, the above means “Oh my God, parent alert,” and that is just what parents have to be these days ... alert to what their kids are doing and saying in this digital world.
With all of the social media outlets out there—from Facebook and Myspace to Twitter to Instagram to cell phone texting—kids today are communicating and challenging each other in a completely new way, doing and saying things they wouldn’t if they were talking face-to-face, and parents need to know more before they allow it.
“I always explain to parents that social media should be like driving,” says deputy first class Robert Kovacs, a member of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office’s Fallston Secondary Schools School Policing Team. “You would never give your keys to your teenager and say go for it! The same should be done with the computer and social media.”
Kovacs says too many parents give their children access to a computer without monitoring them. As children constantly test boundaries at home and in school, they also do with social media. Parents need to sit down with their children and go over what it means to be responsible online.
“Like the car analogy, you should know more about the car and driving in general than your teenager you’re teaching and the same goes for computers and the Internet,” says Kovacs, who encourages parents to take a social media class with their children to learn “the ins and outs” and deter them from “trying to pull a fast one in cyberspace.”
A recent study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics cites research concluded that more than 75 percent of teenagers own cell phones, with 54 percent of them used for texting, 24 percent for instant messaging, and 25 percent for social media.
Studies also cite risks associated with susceptibility to peer pressure, clique-forming, sexual experimentation and bullying as a result of the self-regulation of adolescents and teens on social media.
“A high school student told me awful things were being said about her on Twitter—all because she had done ‘the right thing’ and told a friend’s mother about dangerous (life-threatening) behavior her friend had taken part in,” says Alyssa King, library-media specialist at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air. “She insisted on reading me a few posts, and we just cried together. I told her to ‘stop reading these posts on Twitter NOW.’ ”
Wendy Kelly, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist practicing in Churchville, says, “With social media, kids feel safe behind the computer, and tend to be harsher and say more than they would face-to-face.” This of course presents problems for children, and exacerbates feelings in those already struggling with depression or anxiety.
“I feel it is more important than ever that users be educated on what it means to have integrity and to seek integrity—especially when interacting in an online environment,” King says. “Personally, I feel that balancing—and separating—screen time with real world activities (and) face-to-face relationships is the healthiest goal (anyone) can have.”
Technology is in fast-forward mode, she adds, and kids today got thrown into it like they were “pushed into a pool of cold water.” The difficulty, for parents, is keeping up with it.
One suggestion is to require to be a child’s “friend” on Facebook, “follow” him or her on Twitter and other sites, and also have all passwords, Kelly says. Parents should also periodically check messages on their child’s phone to make sure their texts are appropriate.
But, Kelly says, kids are savvy, and some have alternate Facebook accounts their parents don’t know about or block them
from viewing their posts. She had a client with a fake account through which she tried to encourage a boy to like her, and she posted fake pictures from Google images.
Kelly cautions that parents should not allow children younger than 13 to have Facebook accounts as the site suggests. Nor should they be tweeting about their lives —and others’—with their smart phones.
“My daughter is 13 and she doesn’t have a smart phone,” says Kelly. “She doesn’t need it.”
Like many parents, King, who has a 5-year-old son, had an eye-opening experience recently. Her train-enthusiast son watched YouTube videos of “Thomas the Tank Engine.” After, he clicked on a video of a real train, and then a video of a tornado. That was scary to her son, and she had to explain tornadoes to him. Imagine older children clicking on videos that are much more frightening or explicit.
Internet education must begin at an early age and continue through high school. In Harford County, the curriculum includes lessons about computer safety beginning in kindergarten, when they are taught to check sources and that Google is “not the answer to everything,” says Melissa Friedman, media specialist at William S. James Elementary School in Abingdon. The lesson coordinates with a unit on body safety, which asserts that computers can connect them to a stranger, and if he is not seen or known and is not a friend or family member, then he is a stranger to be avoided.
In third grade, an Internet safety unit explains that words cannot be erased once they hit the send button. A series of videos of cartoon characters help to further explain stranger danger, viruses and the Internet. In fourth and fifth grade, the curriculum continues to stress online safety, suggesting safe online resources and safe usernames for email and logins.
Students are also encouraged to keep their information private and not shared on the computer, beginning in elementary school. Social media sites use data mining programs to access personal information from the computer, unbeknownst to the user, providing a lifeline for businesses and marketing companies, and even Internet predators.
“We work to get kids to understand they have to be responsible for themselves, think before they do something that could put them in danger,” says Friedman. “Giving their name, address, where they go to school, soccer jersey number could help someone find them.”
Angela Dencler, school counselor at Red Pump Elementary School in Bel Air, says parents should use controls established by different computer companies and websites. Friedman’s children, 10 and 8, are “so locked up.” Applications are restricted as is their access to various sites, she says. They also must observe family rules dictating usage and time restrictions. It is also beneficial to keep the computer in a public area like the family room where their usage — and their friends— can be monitored, and not allow them to use a laptop or iPod with Internet access while they are alone in their bedrooms.
“You can’t be afraid of the technology,” Dencler says. “You just have to find out what you can do to keep
your children safe.”
Bel Air mom Jodi Richman keeps the computer in the kitchen to monitor Tyler, 14, Bailee, 12, and Kyle, 9. She’s Tyler’s Facebook friend and has no qualms about asking him or Bailee to hand over either’s iPod or phone —even in the middle of a game—to view texts and messages. Kyle and Bailee, neither 13, do not have Facebook accounts. Bailee has a phone because she is on a year-round swim team and needs to communicate with her parents.
“It’s important to keep them young as long as you can,” says Richman, who recently quit her job to be home and monitor them more. “Weneed to keep them innocent by monitoring what they have access to. Everyone’s in too much of a rush to grow up.”
Social Media Tips
1. Passwords. Your kids’ passwords are not supposed to keep you out. Always know their passwords to their Facebook, iPhone, etc. They should have a password for security reasons, but you need to know it. Some kids have two Facebook accounts, so make sure you know about both.
2. Monitoring. Never allow your kids to be on the computer, Xbox, etc. alone. It should be in a central location in the house so that you can monitor what they’re doing.
3. Parental Controls. All computers should have parental controls to limit the sites and how much time your kids spend on the computer. This includes their smartphones, iPods and gaming consoles as well. Talk to your mobile provider about what they offer in parental controls. (Side note, as a safety precaution, always have their GPS enabled so that you know where they are in an emergency.)
4. Online Bullying. Some kids who would never bully other kids in person have no trouble doing it online. If they can’t see the victim and how they react in person, it lessens the severity of the bullying to them. Watch what your kids are posting and make sure they haven’t made any bullying statements. Computers take the person out of the equation and make it easier for bullying.
5. Establish Rules. When deciding whether it’s time to let your child online, sit down together and discuss the expectations. Online contracts are available for both parents and children to sign. When the rules are broken, be firm and take away computer privileges. If necessary, when you’re not around, take the power cord with you so they won’t sneak on!
Netsmartz.org/parents — according to their website is “a program of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”
Wiredsafety.org — according to their website is “a U.S. based online safety, education, and help group.”
Internetsafety101.org — according to their website is “non-partisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to online safety.”
Safe.org — according to their website is “a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating and empowering youth (and others) to safely, responsibly and productively use Information and Communications Technologies.”
keepsafe.org — Internet Keep
Safe Coalition (iKeepSafe) — according to their website is “a nonprofit international alliance of more than 100 policy leaders, educators, law enforcement members, technology experts, public health experts and advocates.”
cybertipline.com — reporting mechanism for child sexual exploitation by the National Center
for Missing and Exploited Children