Help teens navigate social media and keep them safe

Contributing columnistMarch 31, 2014 

With the abundance of smart phones, tablets, and laptops available, it has made it very difficult for adults to keep an eye out on teen's online activities. Smart phones can be slipped in jean pockets and go anywhere away from the watchful eye of adults.

High-tech bullying, risky behaviors, and unseen predators can be of danger to teens.

Cyber bullying includes sending mean or threatening emails, instant messages, posts, or text messages. Cyber bullies can be classmates, online acquaintances, and even anonymous users.

Risky behaviors include engaging in sexually explicate conversations or sending nude selfies. A selfie made when 16 years old can come back to haunt when 25 years old. And it maybe illegal, too. Remember nothing is truly private on the Internet.

Online predators are trolling social media sites looking for victims. Most scouting and recruitment of victims by human traffickers, or social media pimps, is now done online.

Do you know what apps your teen has on their smart phone or who they are interacting with online?

The apps on your teen's smart phone, which allows them to connect with friends, can be opening them up to any or all of those dangers. Parents and other adult relatives need to be aware of some of the messaging services — Snapchat, Wickr, WhatsApp, and Frankly, for example — which are currently very popular with teens and could pose a danger to them.

Ask.Fm is a platform encouraging users, with the option of anonymity, to ask each other questions. The conversation can quickly move from innocent questions to sexually or aggressive ones. In Europe, the platform has been linked to teen suicide from cyber bullying.

Whisper allows users to post messages anonymously, which are displayed as text superimposed over an image. Then there is Secret where co-workers, friends, and friends of friends can share their deepest thoughts, along with criticism and gossip in near-anonymity.

Mainstream platforms such as Instragram, the photo sharing network, and Facebook are still a concern. According to Allan Silberberg, privacy expert and founder of digijaks, many of these platforms such as Instagram and Ask.FM don't verify the identity of users making it hard to trace people if bullying is occurring.

So how do we protect teens online?

Silberberg says that while many parents do a great job teaching kids about "stranger danger" and how to be safe in the real world, they also need to talk to them about online safety as well. And it needs to start when children are young.

Here are some tips for adults to help a teen navigate social media:

■ Talk to teens about safety rules for using social media. Remember that their common sense is probably very different from yours.

■ Prepare them for the kinds of uncomfortable experiences they might have online, without making them feel that social media is a totally frightening place.

■ Know what they are doing online. What social media platforms are they visiting and have accounts on? Familiarize yourself with the social platforms.

■ Maintain an open dialogue with them about their social use. Be willing to compromise, but make sure they understand your concerns are for their safety.

■ Encourage them to teach you how to use some of the social sites. It opens a door to communication.

■ Without becoming overly judgmental, help them solve problems they encounter online. Make sure they know they can come to you with those problems.

■ Find out what their friends are doing online so you know what their online social reality is all about.

There are some apps which can help you as a parent such as Zabra. But what it comes down to is opening those lines of communicate and building trust and understanding with teens around their social media usage.

Keeping kids safe online is something adults need to be aware of. It isn't just a responsibility of parents. It really does take a village to protect a child online.

Ann Marie van den Hurk is an award-winning, accredited public relations professional and principal of Mind the Gap Public Relations. She proudly called Lexington home but now lives in North Carolina. Email her at ann@mindthegappr.com, or follow her on Twitter at @amvandenhurk.

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