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.