Part of the pace of our culture today involves capturing moments of our lives—whether in word or deed—to share with the rest of our worlds via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms. Our kids want to share their lives and connect with other lives in this way too, and the teens and tweens that I work with are constantly stopping mid-sentence and mid-stride to text and take pictures and videos to tweet, post and send.
Unfortunately, when you combine today’s level of both connectivity and publicity with a pre-teen/teen/child’s sense of invincibility, trouble is often on the horizon. Kids often end up posting, tweeting or promoting content that they later regret and which could have significant ramifications on their futures. There have been hundreds of cases of underage kids, for instance, posting information about parties, drugs and alcohol use that has landed them in hot water.
Even more troubling are the high number of cases we’ve heard about over the past year of teenagers recording and sharing explicit photos of one another or videos of sexual acts engaged—some with willing parties, but many in documented cases of rape. These victims of sexual assault are violated again and again as the images and videos of their abuse go viral. And while social media has been used to identify perpetrators and criminals, it also has a very real, painful impact on those that were victimized.
During the critical pre-teen and teen years kids are especially vulnerable to experimentation, and the desire to gain attention and approval from their peers can often be a driving force behind the content that they post online. This plays into the high number of cases of sexting, cyberbulling and incidences of Internet-initiated sexual relationships. As our kids engage in these acts, they aren’t often thinking about the long-term implications of their actions, and as kids connect via social media, they fail to recognize that there is no real privacy online. Anyone can download, forward and capture content when it’s posted online.
So, what’s a parent to do? Should we throw away all of our Internet-connected devices to protect our children from the dangers lurking online? I would make the case that part of our role as parents in today’s world would be to raise our kids to make wise choices both online and offline, but that means remaining engaged in their online and offline lives. We have a safe social networking guide that I would strongly encourage you to check out, but a few quick tips include to:
Parenting Tips Familiarize yourself with social networking sites. Before allowing your child to set up a social networking site, set up your own profile. Become familiar with the online culture of the site, the privacy settings and the interactive features available. If you do allow your kids to have a social networking profile, set up the page together and make sure you are online “friends” with your teen.
Talk with your kids about what appropriate behavior looks like online, and help them to think before they post.
Remind your kids that there are no take-backs online. Once something is posted or sent online, it is very difficult to regain control of that content. Any image can be copied, forwarded, altered, or shared in the virtual world.
Know what your kids are doing and with whom they are communicating. We recommend that your children only be connected online with people they know and trust in the physical world. Review your child’s “friend” list and ask them how they know the individuals they are connected with.
Use privacy settings to restrict who can access and post on your child’s profile. We recommend using a strict setting such that only your kid’s online friends have access to the information, photos, and videos on their social networking page.
Talk to your teen about avoiding talk about sex online. Teens are seeking love, attention, and affirmation, and chances are good that there is an online peer, stranger, or even a predator willing to give them the attention their hormones crave. Understand that in our sexualized culture, many teens feel pressure to post and send provocative images, texts, comments, and videos. Help them to know to come to you if they are ever contacted by a stranger or someone who makes them uncomfortable online, and consider blocking any individual who attempts to connect with your child that they don’t know in the physical world.
Tell your kids not to impersonate, exclude or attack another individual online. Using technology to be cruel to one another will not only hurt feelings but could also place your child at legal risk.
Consider monitoring your child’s social networking activity. Whether as an online “friend” through the site or by having access to your child’s online sites and passwords, keeping up-to-speed with your kid’s online activities is very important. Consider also using monitoring software (like SafeEyes www.internetsafety.com/xxxchurch), which can help you stay informed about any risky behaviors or tricky situations they may encounter online.
Don’t overreact. If something negative does happen, take a few deep breaths and try to remain calm. You want to keep the conversation going and help your child think critically about their online actions. You want to make sure they know you are a safe place to come if something gets out of hand or if they run into trouble online.
Teach your child to:
◦ Be honest about their age
◦ Remember social networking sites are public spaces
◦ Avoid posting anything that could embarrass them or expose them to danger
◦ Check comments, posts, messages, and tags regularly
◦ Avoid inappropriate content and behavior
◦ Use privacy settings
◦ Think before they post