As a child, I remember hearing the ominous male voice on the TV commercial asking parents: It’s 10 PM. Do you know where your children are?
These days, it’s a little easier to track our kids whereabouts with the help of smart phones and GPS. What we parents don’t always know, however, is where our kids our “hanging out” online.
I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t keep track of my kids’ Internet and social media use. I thought I was doing a stand-up job when I got my teenage son to “friend” me on Facebook a few months ago, only to realize that he hasn’t been on Facebook in over a year.
So where is he spending his time online?
According to a study of social media usage by 16-18 year olds, teens today are moving away from Facebook and onto “cooler” sites like Instagram (which is, granted, owned by Facebook), Snapchat, Vine and Kik. A majority of teens also use simple text messaging on a daily basis.
“Facebook is not just on the slide – it is basically dead and buried,” explains Daniel Miller, the author of the study and a professor at the University College London. Now that their parents and even grandparents are on Facebook, “they (teens) feel embarrassed to even be associated with it.”
So what are these “cool” social media apps that our kids are using, and what exactly are they doing on them? Here is a quick run-down:
Snapchat is popular among teens because it allows them to send photos that disappear within 10 seconds. On the surface, it would seem like a “safe” way for kids to send suggestive photos that they do not want passed on – except for the fact that the recipient can take a screen shot of these allegedly temporary photos, which they can save and share ad infinitum. As such, Snapchat has become a popular platform for teen sexting. According to Snapchat, 350 million photos or “Snaps” are sent every day across the network.
Instagram is another photo-sharing app where teens can post photos and followers can add comments. Like Facebook, Instagram is not supposed to be used by children under 13, but our tech-savvy little ones have figured out a way to overcome that obstacle, making Instagram one of the most popular hangouts for the tween (8-12 year old) set. Of particular concern to parents is the feature that enables users to share the photo location – essentially allowing your child to broadcast his whereabouts to the world. The service also recently rolled out the ability to send photos privately as direct messages, which makes it much more likely to be used for sending racy or inappropriate pics.
Kik is an instant-messaging app that is similar to texting but offers some of the same features that social networking sites do, like photo and file sharing and group chat. Teens are using Kik as an alternative to email or text messaging because it allows them to avoid expensive data charges and text limits. It is free as long as you have WiFi. However, the app has no parental controls and the comments posted on Kik are private, making it a fertile ground for sexting and social media.
Vine, Twitter’s video-sharing app, lets users record and share 6-second videos that are on a continuous loop. Videos can be share with the Vine community or with all of Twitter and Facebook with one click. The problem with Vine is that once teens download the app, they have access to all kinds of videos, including ones that are sexually explicit. Teens can also create and share inappropriate videos of their own. This, coupled wit the app’s geo-locator function, makes Vine a potential playground for predators. By default, all Vine accounts are public. You need to choose to have a protected account if you want your videos to be visible only to approved followers.
So what’s a parent to do?
The fact is, most kids today are online, and most of them are far more tech-savvy than their elders. Even if we wanted to, parents couldn’t effectively ban our kids from using the Internet and social media.
How, then, can we monitor our kids’ social media usage and protect them from potential dangers? Here are a few suggestions:
Know what your kids are using. Anne Collier, executive director of Net Family News, advises parents to talk to their kids regularly about their online activities– what sites they visit most often and if they ever see things that make them uneasy. Frequent, open and honest discussions with your teens are the most the important tools in keeping them safe online.
Use a social media monitoring service. A host of social media monitoring services have popped up that allow parents to keep an eye on what their kids are doing online. One of these, uKnowKids, will scan through sites such as Instagram, Faceboook and Twitter and show you thumbnail-size images of images posted by your child and her “friends” and followers. If you see anything suspicious, it’s a good time to talk to your child. Another service, Reppler, will scour your teen’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Flickr and Picasa accounts and email you if it finds any inappropriate content.
Use parental controls. Most smart phones today have highly effective, built-in parental controls or “restrictions” that limit access to certain functions, sites and apps. While most of these controls are of an all-or-nothing nature – i.e. they allow access to certain functions or they don’t – they can provide some comfort that the iPhone is not going to be used in an inappropriate manner. Other parental controls, such as Qustodi and Avira, allow you to block specified sites and set limits on what your kids can view online. They let you see the apps your kids use, the searches they conduct and the social media sites they visit, as well as the people they hang out with online. Just know that your teen can still post and view photos, videos and texts using a friend’s phone, so make sure to talk to your child regularly about the responsible use of technology.
Get your child’s passwords. Some parents have their teens give them their usernames and passwords for their social media accounts. Given that 60% of teens report setting up controls to block certain content from their parent’s view, logging on as your child may give you a more complete picture.
Are your kids on Instagram, Vine, Kik or Snapchat? How do you monitor their social media use?