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Raising kids in the world of texting, tweeting and tagging

Keeping kids safe on social media
Keeping kids safe on social media (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Meredith Long's twin daughters were 11 years old when they started to use Snapchat, then moved on to Kik Messenger and ooVoo. When they turned 12 and got their first cellphones in December, they expanded to Instagram.

"It's fun stuff, mostly," says Long, a Gambrills mother of four. "Selfies, duck faces."

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But it's also necessitated vigilant monitoring and repeated discussions about what's appropriate online, says Long.

Social media presents a whole new set of challenges to parents, from when children should begin to use it to how to keep kids safe online.  This requires early — and frequent — discussions about what's OK for public consumption. And it fuels concerns about cyber-bullying and other damage to self-esteem and reputations, including the possibility that the ramblings of a moody teen or a photo lacking good judgment could come back to haunt a person on college applications or at the start of her career.

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"It's important for parents to stay involved … and to talk about what's responsible and respectful," says Caroline Knorr, parenting editor at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that provides education and advocacy to promote safe technology and media use for children.

The stakes are high

In November, a 12-year-old Perry Hall girl went missing and was found in North Carolina with a 32-year-old man she allegedly communicated with using Kik Messenger, an instant-messaging app. In February a 21-year-old Maryland man was charged with using Kik to send explicit messages to a 12-year-old girl whom police say he later tried to meet for sex.

And while online predators are a worry for parents, cyberbullying is even more common, says Knorr. Some social media sites are anonymous or allow kids to thinly veil hurtful comments and rumors.

"They might say,  'A girl in second-period math …' Everyone knows who they're talking about, but they never say the name," Knorr says.

Still, she says, "most say their experience on social media is positive. … And every kid wants to use it. The bad stuff attracts attention, but those are often extreme cases. What's crucial is that parents are involved."

Age versus maturity

The first issue for parents is to figure out when to allow kids to begin to explore social media. Some social media sites require users to be 13 years old. It's not that they can't use them before then, Knorr says — it's just that companies can't legally collect data on children younger than 13 without parental approval.

Maturity is the most important consideration, Knorr says. "Kids have a hard time thinking of consequences of their actions."

When a daughter of Lawanda Stone of Catonsville graduated from middle school, she got a piece of advice from her grandmother about social media: "Your name is your brand."

Online posts and pictures "follow you everywhere," she told her granddaughter.

"It was good timing for her to hear," Stone said.

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Knorr recommends that parents talk with kids about unintended consequences. "They have to think it through, to make sure what they post isn't going to be embarrassing for themselves or a friend," she says, adding that kids should ask permission before posting pictures of others.

"They might take a picture that they think is funny, but it can hurt someone's reputation," says Knorr.

Long-term consequences

Last summer, the head football coach at the University of Georgia dropped a recruit because of misbehavior on Twitter. And it wasn't an isolated case.

Colleges and universities may not check the social media presence of all tens of thousands of applicants, but it is common for them to check students who are being offered scholarships or being recruited for sports, says Jake Talmage, director of college counseling at St. Paul's School.

Colleges also monitor sites such as Twitter for mentions of their names. Talmage recently told students about a teen who tweeted during a college tour about the attractiveness of the student guide. Before the hourlong session was over, the college admissions office had been alerted to the post and sent security to check that the guide was OK, Talmage says.

But St. Paul's — and many other schools  — don't wait until students are considering college; the appropriate use of technology is discussed in middle school because there are plenty of fifth- and sixth-graders with Twitter and Instagram accounts.

"We tell students once you post something, it's out there,"  Talmage says. "And it represents them."

Set limits

In addition to content, many parents struggle with the amount of social media being used by their kids. "They're totally addicted," says Long.

Every night, the girls turn off their phones and Long charges them in her room.  Otherwise, there might be a temptation for the girls to stay up and play when they should be sleeping.

Stone,  who has daughters ages 11 and 16, has family-wide "technology breaks."

"We have no devices at dinner or at events," she says.

Monitor constantly

Both parents say they frequently check on their children's social media posts.

"I'm constantly monitoring," says Long. "I click to see their followers."

Occasionally, she finds comments that require her to block one of the girls' friends.

A 19-year-old they knew from church wanted to be friends on Snapchat, says Long. "We know the kid, but still… from a parents' perspective, 'no, no, no.' "

Social media use has prompted family discussions about what's appropriate, and what's not, including in photos, Long says.

Knorr also advises parents to make sure the social media account privacy settings are as secure as possible.

Stone let her oldest daughter open a Facebook account when she went to high school, in part to keep in touch with out-of-town cousins. The teenager rarely checks Facebook anymore, but regularly uses Twitter, Instagram and Vine.

Her younger daughter now also uses Instagram, and like most other tweens and teens, they both post selfies.

However, "I'd much rather they post what they're thinking, not what they're wearing," says Stone.

She checks their posts weekly and follows their friends. And they don't use full names online. "I resisted for a while," Stone says, "but I'm glad there's that little layer of protection."

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