Social Media Mayhem
● By Wendy Sipple
Over the past few years, there’s no denying social media has helped reunite old friends, connect long distance relatives and even raise funds for charities. LOL! However, lurking within an online world filled with “friend requests” and “followers” are threats to the basic safety and happiness of our kids and teens. In order to protect our wired kids, we parents must exercise tough love in determining when our child joins the social network revolution and remain hypervigilant once they do.
AN ABUNDANCE OF YOUTH
Reports estimate a whopping 50 percent of Americans have a profile on one or more social networking sites. Today’s top social media tools are Facebook (540 million users worldwide), Twitter (98 million users), MySpace (67 million users) and LinkedIn (41 million users), with new sites like Google+ continually entering the marketplace.
But it’s the age, not proliferation, of users that concerns child advocates. Sites like those listed above clearly prohibit registration of anyone under age 13 as a way to protect children. Unfortunately, that age limit is routinely circumvented. A May 2011 Consumer Reports survey found that 7.5 million Facebook users are below the minimum age. Shockingly, 5 million are 10 years old or younger.
ONLINE SOCIAL DANGERS
So what’s the big deal? Social networking is just a harmless way for adolescents to connect with each other, right? Not so fast, says retired FBI special agent Jeff Rinek, Rescue resident and founder of Parental Options, a safety software company dedicated to preventing online child victimization.
Rinek has extensive experience in crimes against children and says careless Internet use makes adolescents, especially, extremely vulnerable to predators and exploitation. “Any place you find social networking, you’ll find offenders,” says Rinek. “And peripubescent kids (ages 11-13) are prime targets for sexual predators.” He says younger kids forget computers are portals to the outside world. “Online predators have become experts at posing as other children, even hijacking identities in order to fish for victims,” Rinek says, adding that two of the more dangerous behaviors on Facebook are the posting of geotagged pictures, and the ability to “check in.” Both allow strangers and bullying peers alike to determine your child’s exact location.
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?
Rinek encourages parents to parent in the virtual world as they would in the real world, and strongly backs age restrictions for networking sites. “Evidence suggests children under the age of 20 are not truly capable of understanding the consequences of their actions.” Once your teen is online, he believes simply monitoring computer use or “friending” your child is not enough; nor should parents rely solely on Internet blocks or filters. “The only answer is parents taking an active role in helping identify risks before their child is victimized,” says Rinek, arguing that a child’s right to protection far outweighs his or her right to privacy. “I challenge parents to review all the pictures their teen has on their profile, and also Google their child’s name to see what comes back.”
Safety concerns aside, pediatricians worry about the health and happiness of today’s online generation. An April 2011 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics outlined a new phenomenon of “Facebook Depression” triggered by extensive use of social media sites and the popularity contest they foster.
Consider the following applications posted on the Facebook “wall” of a local 11-year-old boy:
- Who is better looking, X or Y?
- Do you think X has a nice smile?
- Do you think X is ugly?
- Do you think X still wets his bed?
Social media can be an amazing tool, but as parents, it’s our responsibility to ensure our Web-based kids use it safely. Next month is National Cyber Security Awareness Month, a perfect time to review online safety with your child.
SAFE ALTERNATIVES FOR PRE-TEENS
There are more than 700 appropriate Web sites for kids and adolescents age 14 and under. A list through the American Library Association can be found at ala.org/greatsites.
RESOURCES FOR PARENTS AND TEENS
- American Academy of Pediatrics SafetyNet, safetynet.aap.org
- NetSmartzKids, netsmartzkids.org
- The Parent's Guide to Facebook: Tips and Strategies to Protect Your Children on the World's Largest Social Network by Kathryn Rose.
- National Center For Missing and Exploited Children, missingkids.com
- GetNetWise, kids.getnetwise.org
- ConnectSafely, connectsafely.org
- StaySafeOnline, StaySafeOnline.org
- Stop.Think.Connect Campaign, dhs.gov/stopthinkconnect
SAFETY TIPS FOR TEENS
- Learn about and use the privacy and security settings on social networking sites
- Remember, what you post online stays online
- Thoughtfully manage your online reputation
- Be careful about the personal information you post
- Protect your hardware from viruses by installing a security suite
- Know and manage your friends and their posts
- Know what action to take if you get harassed or threatened
- Use strong passwords and different ones for each online account
- Be cautious about messages you receive that contain links
- Select a Twitter username that is gender and age-neutral. Use an image, not a photo for your profile.
SAFETY TIPS FOR PARENTS
- Discuss safety and make a contract about appropriate Internet and social media use with your child. GetNetSafe provides a sample agreement at kids.getnetwise.org/tools/toolscontracts.
- Research safety tools available online that monitor and limit your teen’s online activities, filter graphic content, or block the sharing of personal information.
- Help your child remove their own underage social networking account. If that doesn’t work, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter all offer ways for concerned adults to anonymously report accounts in violation.
- Immediately report any inappropriate contact with, or obscene or sexual photos, material or messages sent to, your child to the local authorities and to the networking site.