Today, our tweens and teens lives revolve around mobile phones, social media and the Internet. They are the first generation whose entire existence coincides with modern technology; relying upon and leveraging it to socialize, communicate, shop, entertain and learn. Their normal and healthy quest for independence is blossoming and expanding, pushing and challenging parents on a daily basis. Keeping our kids safe in the physical world, which used to seem challenging, now appears easy compared to the potential perils and dangers of the online world.
This blog is the last in a three-part series, Keeping Kids Safe Online. This final installment focuses on more mature themes broken down into categories that present danger to your tweens and teens in both the physical and technology worlds.
As parents, we know that kids picking on one another is nothing new. However, long gone are the days when a kid could leave the bully, and their reach, at the playground gate. Online, kids exhibit something called ‘keyboard courage’, a willingness to say the most hurtful things behind the protection of a keyboard and an Internet connection. Social media, email, texting, gaming platforms and instant messaging are all avenues of this type of behavior. Sadly, there are multiple accounts where cyberbullying has led to suicide.
This is defined as “…sending and receiving sexual messages through technology such as a phone, app, email or webcam.” It includes words, pictures, video, weblinks, etc. With the technology embedded in our smartphones, tablets, and laptops, accessing a camera for still photography or video is instantaneous and inherently user friendly. It is perfectly normal for our tween and teens to be thinking about and forming romantic relationships. That normal exploration combined with access to technology bring about behaviors that ranges from exchanging flirty text messages to creating and sharing hardcore pornography. The damage of sexting can certainly include embarrassment and social reputation, but can also escalate to coercion and in many jurisdictions child pornography charges.
As parents we know that this type of content has been around for centuries. The change in the medium (technology) has brought quicker, broader, and more diverse offering directly to our kids. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), exposure to pornography can have a lasting impact and hamper your pre-teen and teen’s ability to form healthy, loving relationships. In several surveys, 50% of 11-13 year olds and nearly 80% of 16-17 year olds have reported seeing pornography via the Internet.
- Online predators:
Online predators can easily impersonate your kid’s peers in an attempt to connect with potential victims. They frequent social media, chat rooms and online gaming environments establishing relationships with kids to mentally, emotionally, and/or physically exploit them. According to law enforcement, online predators will groom multiple kids at the same time and often it takes them less than 30 minutes to gain access to your kids’ personal information or image.
- Identity theft:
Stealing someone’s identity remains one of the most precious commodities in the hacker community. When looking to steal identities, electronic criminals focus on the deceased and children. Why? Because no one is monitoring the identities of either group. With our tweens and teens, they are a blank slate of credit. Cyber criminals can open credit and bank accounts, which if not caught quickly, can take years to unravel and will follow them into adulthood.
That is a long and quite frankly, scary list of potential traps for our tweens and teens. Now more than ever our kids need to know they can come to us with questions about what they are seeing, hearing, and receiving online. They need clearly articulated boundaries and consequences for when those boundaries are broken. They also need to know that mistakes happen, and that together you will work to fix them.
As you enter this stage of parenting, here are some key points to consider in helping to protect your tween and teen when using technology:
- Internet access is a privilege to be earned, not a rite of passage. Be sure your child demonstrates responsible behavior when using technology. Establish a code of conduct for internet use, set clear boundaries for what type of content you want them viewing and sharing. Create a list of accounts and passwords, with a clear expectation that you, as the parent, will be accessing these accounts if needed.
- In many cases, giving a pre-teen or teen a mobile device is a convenience for the parents and care providers. You will hear “everyone has a phone”. However, handing your tween, a smartphone is no small matter. Establish clear boundaries for the apps they can install and the content they can share. Set rules for where cell phones are kept and charged for the evening, establish time frames for when they are in use and then they are turned off.
- Inform your teen if they post something on the Internet and/or social media, it is there for eternity and there is no taking it back. Share real life examples of how social media posts have impacted teens college admissions, sports scholarships, and job prospects. Establish a clear ‘think twice before hitting send’ guideline and a reminder that if you would not share the sentiment face to face, it should not be shared online.
- Install parental control software on your computer/mobile device to monitor Internet usage, control access to applications and limit use based on amount of time or time of day. These parental controls are available on both your router, your streaming media services and through your mobile phone carrier. Learn what options you have available and use those tools to establish boundaries and guidelines for your kids.
Today’s older teens are more aware of Internet safety because they discuss it with their peers, see evidence of poor decision-making regarding posting Internet/social media content and learn about it during their school day. For many of our teens they are growing up in a more publicly accessible way, often showing their strengths and weaknesses to a digital world.
While school-based instruction and peer experiences are valuable, nothing replaces parents and care-providers closely monitoring their technology use. At the end of the day, our tweens and teens are still kids, and they still need their parent’s guidance, discipline and understanding as they begin their maturation process.