Those of us who follow news stories regarding teens and social media may one day look back at the events that unfolded this week in Ridgewood, N.J. as the "canary in the coal mine" to a growing danger for our children. What danger is that you ask? The increasing warp speed at which social media and easy access to cell phones allows their mistakes to span the globe in mere seconds.
If you don't know what happened in Ridgewood I'll give you the recap very quickly (or you can read the Ridgewood Patch article right here -- it's especially insightful to read the 100+ comments from many of the town's own citizens). Underage girls, using the wildly popular smartphone app Snapchat sent compromising photos of themselves to boys in the school. Snapchat, in case you haven't heard about it, allows people to send texts or photos that "self destruct." Except that nothing sent through social media is controllable once it leaves your hands.
The boys took a picture of the screen when the photo was revealed, and then posted that on Instagram. It quickly took off and was circulated from there. According to Patch.com, "In a letter sent to parents on Wednesday, Fishbein said police have called for an 'amnesty period' for those found to have created, transmitted or possessed any illict images or movies." That amnesty period comes to an end on Monday, where all photos of the girls should have been erased. (A telling solution as to how clueless both kids and adults are regarding social media -- as there is no way to determine or to guarantee that those pictures are ever completely "erased" from cyberspace).
Mind you, there is nothing special about this case. This is happening everywhere. Teens take risks, they push the boundaries that we, as parents think we have established, and they make mistakes -- lots and lots of dumb mistakes. Hopefully they learn from them -- that's called growing up.
But never before have we had to worry about the speed and reach of these mistakes being so vast and so difficult to correct.
Pew Internet Research revealed last week that not only do 95 percent of teens use the Internet, just about half of them have access to it anytime they want, right in their pockets -- via smartphones. Well, those phones don't seem so smart when they become an instant delivery system for naked pictures or bullying Facebook posts.
But what is a parent to do?
Personally, my daughter owning a smartphone began as a way to tether us during the day, while I am at work, and she is at school, and then walking home, and then doing her homework. I'm not willing, at this point to give up the ability to contact her at a moment's notice -- or to have her communicate with family members when necessary. But as a parent, how do I keep her safe from all of the other risky behavior that owning a smart phone can make so easy?
Parents need creative solutions. While I may have co-founded a social network for families where parents can teach their children about social media in a safe, private environment, my teen is also active on other, more public sites. We all know that the best defense is a good offense, so as a parent I try to constantly stay abreast of what the "cool" social media sites are, and where my daughter is engaging.
A great resource that I have stumbled upon is Quib.ly, a free, online community that offers crowdsourced insights from parents and experts focused specifically on the intersection of parenting and technology. And I am not alone. Quib.ly Editor in Chief Holly Seddon told me that the most popular questions/answers conversations on the site revolve around cell phone usage. Below is our conversation including the best nuggets of advice that have been passed back and forth between parents on Quib.ly.
How popular are, or (are not) the questions on cell phones as compared to others?
Holly Seddon: From the very beginning, we have noticed a significant proportion of the questions posted on Quib.ly relate to cell phones, and in particular smart phones. This is no suprise when you consider that - far from simply being phones used to make calls - these devices are miniature computers, with access to the web, the ability to make purchases (apps, music, games), chat functions and location services.
Getting a phone for your child just isn't a simple decision and parents are realizing that they need to tool up and understand how to make these devices as safe as possible, as well as how to equip kids with the knowledge and common sense to use them appropriately. This is reflected in the diverse questions asked on Quib.ly, from the practical stuff like what ground rules should come with a phone and whether kids should take their phones to bed to financial matters like how to manage their bills through to what parents should know about chat apps.
What is the most popular topic/question on your site for parents of teens?
Holly Seddon: Although all of our sections are popular, we definitely see an enormous enthusiasm among parents and experts talking about education, safety and privacy, gaming, digital future and, of course, mobile. Because of the nature of the community -- Quib.ly has hundreds of parents and experts adding questions and answers 24/7 -- the most popular topics and questions change constantly! Our trending topics are a great way to see what are currently big talking points. At the time of writing, trending topics include whether a 15-year-old boy should have a mobile, how the next crop of parents will handle online interaction with their kids and whether videogames can boost education.
What is the best cell phone parenting advice you have seen on your site?
Holly Seddon: Talk to your kids! Seriously, that seems to underpin almost all answers, whether from the perspective of parental experience or expert knowledge. Before handing a phone over, it's about talking to kids about how to keep their property safe, who to give their number out to, what is expected of them... this seems to be at the foundation of a common sense approach. And then once kids have cell phones -- alongside talking about how they're using them -- the crucial thing is for parents to stay abreast of all the new considerations that apps, games and web-searching throw up. For example, chat apps that are increasing in popularity among teens but can't be easily monitored by parents.
While some people choose to monitor their kids' phone use, or withhold passwords, this is a very personal choice, whereas the need for open communication between parent and child is universal.
What is quib.ly's goal?
Holly Seddon:To help parents give their kids a head start in this connected world. There is a daily waterfall of amazing opportunities for learning, playing, socialising and working towards the unimaginable careers of tomorrow. We want to help parents find out about all the cool stuff available to their kids, while helping them to stay aware and alert to the possible risks. Forewarned is forearmed, so we help shrink these dangers back down to size while allowing parents to help immerse their kids in the amazing opportunities technology brings to every facet of life.