Teens and tweens are creating online profiles and increasingly living through the Internet, offering challenges to parents who must grasp the new realities and master the nuances of raising kids in a digital age.
Parents are getting wise to their kids’ interactions on social media sites like Facebook, but it seems as soon as the older generation picks up and joins the trend, the kids take it underground to new places.
The players have changed, but the cat-and-mouse game of parents trying to keep tabs on their restless kids is as old as time. Still, the novelty and the permanency of the modern child’s digital activities requires a greater parental awareness, since what kids say or do on the online playground — unlike a skinned knee at the neighborhood playground — won’t likely disappear over time.
The issue is moving beyond what specific sites are popular to understanding that kids become drawn to these things — and like it or not, are leaving digital footprints. Parents may well consider starting earlier to ensure safer, more positive online experiences for their kids as they pass through adolescence and into their own adulthood.
Where The Kids Are
Facebook, formerly a cause for parental confusion and tween enchantment, is going public, in more ways than one. Coinciding with the social network’s IPO are increasing reports of parents using the now familiar social networking tool for their own ends.
Most recently, the case of Denise Abbot, the mother who used her daughter’s Facebook to send a stern message to her 13-year-old daughter illustrates how the simmering debate is bubbling over, turning the tide a little more firmly in parents’ favor.
Many teens and tweens are already one step ahead of the Ohio mom, and in response to their growing awareness of grownups’ access to Facebook, are turning to Twitter over Facebook to talk with friends.
Teenagers demanding a more private online communication channel nearly doubled Twitter’s use for the coveted demographic as they flocked to the site’s unique benefits. Twitter’s default settings allow public access, but teenagers are finding ways to use the site differently. For example, teenagers can lock their accounts, use anonymous handles and establish multiple accounts to keep their communication under the radar, beyond prying eyes.
Teens who embrace Twitter because they are able to restrict who monitors their activity may still explore other options, especially in light of news the senior set and other adults are finding fun with the micro-blogging site. While society may cheer the granny trying to get 80,000 Twitter followers, to teens and others, it may be a signal to move on.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr or Google+ have policies meant to bar kids under the age of 13, but savvy kids are finding answers in many free apps to create more private spaces. Apps like Instagram, the photo filtering program, are serving as a backdoor for kids to gather for private communications and sharing.
Often parents don’t know these handy programs, which seem like sensible learning tools for their children, can be used to share their creations. For example, many kids are using Instagram, Versagram and Viddy to post and “like” photo-jokes and text messages they create. Instagram does have an age requirement, but parents may not be aware of this other use, and children can enter fake birth dates to satisfy it.
Kids are good at finding new places to connect, preferably unsupervised by their families. Despite their concerns about online predators, bullying and lost hours in front of the screen, parents are learning how difficult it is to prevent their kids from interacting with social media, when new options and mutations sprout up apparently daily.
The kids’ persistence, combined with the parents’ belief that it is in the children’s best interests to be nimble with technology, is sparking growth in social networks and other interactive content younger kids can engage with and parents can monitor to make these early exposures fun and educational.
This summer, Microsoft and Scholastic will help sponsor the inaugural Digital Family Summit June 29-July 1 in Philadelphia, to bring together over 200 creative teens and tweens from around the country along with their families. At the three-day conference, teens will develop skills through hands-on workshops and interactive sessions, learn how they can take their creative endeavors to a more professional level, explore the impact that kids are having on the broader digital culture, and meet other like-minded teens.
“We have teens, college professors, business people, bloggers, editors, entrepreneurs, and programmers coming together for this event. These remarkable online professionals are committed to sharing their expertise and experience with the next generation of digital creators in a way that is both entertaining and useful in the real world,” says conference co-founder Jennie Baird.
The conference reflects what emerging companies are already capitalizing on. Social media start-up KidzVuz, for example, helps kids create content at an early age without using their names to ease concerns about establishing a permanent record.
KidzVuz, developed by two technologically active New York City mothers, lets kids create a profile with handles like “LittleMermaid” to showcase their video reviews of books, movies, trends and activities, and parents have to approve the account. There is no private messaging, and comments are actively monitored.
The idea behind this and other social network entertainment networks for kids under the age of 13, like Walt Disney’s Club Penguin, Imbee, Kidsocial, Scuttlepad and Everloop, is to create a safe place for children to learn how to communicate effectively and politely on a more controlled medium that will be key to their social, academic and economic lives.
For example, the children learn lessons about film production like lighting and dialogue by making videos to post on the networks, and they can understand, with advice from parents and peers, what topics are interesting and proper as they create their own content.
By starting younger kids out on “training wheels” of social media, and stressing some good sharing practices, parents can plant early seeds that will bear fruit when their children hit the tween and teenage years.
Influence and Instruction: A Combined Approach
For parents with children who are already teenagers and missed the window these social media “starter networks” give, developing an evolving rulebook for kids’ online activities is crucial.
Letting teens know what’s okay and what’s not on Facebook and Twitter and learning a few things about privacy settings can greatly diminish the risks of social-network snafus. Teens understand some of the bigger implications, so talk with them about setting these options to “friends only,” meaning no one outside the child’s immediate, approved circle can interact with them. Facebook also allows disabling its location services, meaning status updates won’t include the child’s whereabouts.
On Twitter, explore options like Tweet Privacy, which protects the user’s tweets by making them visible only to approved people — not the world at large. Another setting worth enabling is the “Always use HTTPS” feature, which tells Twitter to use a secure connection when possible, thus reducing the risk of the user’s account getting hacked.
Also, just because social media is so appealing to tweens and teens doesn’t mean it is an absolute right. Parents can use their kids’ fascination with social media as a parenting tool to reward their children’s behavior and accomplishments.
Ignoring social media and your children’s digital lives is not an option, since they aren’t going away anytime soon and could feature prominently in college applications and job prospects.
Parents can influence their tweens and teens’ online behavior and get a head start teaching younger kids about the implications of privacy, the permanence of their Web footprint, the basics of brand building and something about online manners.
Consider the issue of your kids’ digital lives not with an attitude of resignation, but as an opportunity to bolster your child’s understanding. After all, if parenting is done right, these kids will one day head out into a world where you aren’t there at every step. ♦