7 things parents need to know about kids' online habits

Tuesday's Sentinel had the horrid story of a teenage girl whose lousy decision to send a nude picture of herself spiraled out of control.

Her image went viral. It became an advertisement for porn sites and, authorities say, the obsession of a predator.

It was a powerful reminder of what one of Florida's leading pediatricians, Dr. Lisa Cosgrove, tells her patients: "One picture can change everything. It can change your entire life."

But sexting isn't the only thing parents must watch. Parents must be plugged in on all fronts.

I know from experience.

When my 13-year-old daughter first got on Instagram — a photo-sharing medium similar to Facebook — we thought we had it all figured out.

Her posts were private. We monitored her discussions. We had her password. And her Internet access was limited to computers in the common areas of our house and to her parent's devices.

She didn't post anything more adventurous than photos of her cat.

What we didn't know, however, was that Instagram can tell the world exactly where users are when they post — down to the precise parking space of our car.

That's just creepy. We learned the GPS settings needed to be turned off. But do all parents know that?

Do they know Instagram's minimum age for users is supposed to be 13?

Do they know what their kids are watching on Vine? Who they're talking with on Snapchat? And who they're following on Twitter?

Many parents are woefully behind the technology curve, said Cosgrove, a past president of Florida's chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "The majority of 2-year-olds who come into my office know how to pull out their parents' phone and turn on the video they want," she says.

So here are some tips:

1. Don't start too early. Cosgrove doesn't recommend smart phones for kids younger than 12 or middle school. When we wanted our daughter to have a phone for emergencies, we got her an older model that merely (gasp!) called people. It was super-lame … which was just what we wanted.

2. Don't allow smartphones in bedrooms at night. Boredom, curiosity and technology is a toxic combination.

3. Understand the technology they are using. If you're a parent who thinks a Vine only grows on a tree, you need to study up."Nobody ever said parenting is easy," Cosgrove said. "It's harder than ever these days. But if you don't know what your child is doing, you are never going to keep up."

4. Interact with your kids on social media. Don't just be a scold. "Like" their funny pictures. Comment on their observations of the day. Develop a relationship based on trust and interaction — not just parachuting in to tell them when they've messed up.

5. Talk with them about what they see. Maybe your kid is doing all the right things. But what about their friends? If you see their friends posting inappropriate things, talk with your kids about it. Ask them what kind of message they think that sends — and tell them what you think.

6. Have tech-free time. Make rules. Phones go away during dinner. Don't allow them to text during conversations. As great as technology can be, it also can undermine basic communication skills.

7. Help them understand the concept of permanence. Kids send goofy pictures to their friends. Make them understand that once they click "send" or "post," they have lost control. There is no telling where that image will end up.

Sexting stories are scary stuff. But all of social media affects kids, their behavior, their self-esteem and the rest of their lives. It's up to parents to be plugged in.

I've certainly made mistakes and am still learning. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to find out what happened to the "e" in Tumblr … which apparently is not a gymnast.

smaxwell@tribune.com

 

LATEST NEWS VIDEOS

PHOTO GALLERIES