A parent’s guide to social media

Get to know the apps, sites and networks your teen spends time on

Just because you are friends with your children on Facebook — if they are even still on the platform — doesn’t mean you are privy to the full scope of their activity on social media.

New social media apps pop up every few months, sprouting innovative ways in which teens can connect with one another. This furthers the digital divide between what kids are communicating and what their parents can see. It’s now more important than ever for parents to know about the myriad of social media apps popular with teens including the potential risks each brings, experts say.

“Kids have dropped off Facebook now that their parents are using it. It’s not as visual and not as video-centric, and it has tons of ads,” said Kris Bowden, who owns Social Guru, a local social media marketing company based in Dover.  “But the huge part of why they leave is the fact that they want their own space.”

There are several social media apps that appeal to teens — and they run the gamut from text, chat, meeting rooms, to picture and video sharing platforms. Some popular ones that may be familiar to parents include Twitter, Instagram and YouTube — while others such as Snapchat, Kik Messenger, WhatsApp and Tik Tok — may be less so.

Each app has a unique audience, and although they set age restrictions (usually age 13-plus), it is nearly impossible for a software developer to verify the age of a subscriber. And even if you join every app and demand that your child “friends” you, there are still other ways your child may stay under your social media radar.

“My daughter had five Instagram accounts. Kids make duplicate accounts by signing up for a new account with a new email,” Bowden said. “I’ve given up trying to keep all of her passwords, because it inspired more secret accounts. Instead it’s about having a conversation — we talk about social media every day.”

Start a conversation and keep it going

It’s typical for teens to have multiple accounts and sign up for apps they may not be old enough to join, said Heather Inyart, executive director of Media Power Youth, a nonprofit organization based in Manchester that focuses on teaching youth to consume and create media safely.  The mission of the organization is to change the way kids think about and use media.

Media Power Youth, funded by individual donations and grants from local philanthropic organizations such as the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and the Granite United Way, offers curricula for teachers and professional development training, family nights, and other programs that focus on how to create positive media and cultivate healthy relationships with technology.

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office is funding the organization’s “Screenshots” middle school media literacy curriculum as part of a broader violence prevention initiative to proactively address the influence of media on school violence.

“Teens are very smart, and they know their parents are looking out for multiple accounts. They manage their online reputations and are guarded about the information they share in certain circles,” Inyart said.

That’s why it’s critical for parents to talk to their children about media use and discuss expectations around responsible online behavior, she said, adding that Media Power Youth advises parents in its workshops to explain to kids right away that nothing shared online is private and that certain choices in how kids communicate can have consequences for them.

“We encourage parents to be curious and try to understand why their children enjoy using an app or following a certain YouTube influencer. This type of dialogue builds trust so that when kids encounter content or situations that make them uncomfortable, they will come to their parents for support,” Inyart said.

Understanding how a teen’s mind works can help parents better understand why their child joins particular social media apps or groups in the first place.  For example, today’s kids have grown up around media in a way their parents did not. They are used to instant gratification, thanks to mobile devices. Most parents start providing their children phones when they begin middle school, for convenience. Their peers receive phones at the same time, creating a group of children who suddenly can all communicate with one another, she said.

“Parents grew up with answering machines. If you didn’t hear from a friend in a couple of days, you thought nothing of that. Today’s kids would think of two days as an eternity and think that if they hadn’t heard from a friend, something is really wrong — that they do not want to talk to me anymore,” Inyart said.

Social media and the law

New Hampshire law enforcement officials see firsthand how social media can play a role in victimizing teens and say that there is no one application that poses a greater danger than another.

“Snapchat is widely used only because of its ability to allow people to quickly communicate with messages that seemingly disappear from the device. Kids gravitate toward similar apps that have that capacity. Online predators are on the same apps, because they have the familiarity with how the technology operates and how their prints and tracks can be eliminated so they stay off the radar,” said Matt Fleming, an investigator with the Hillsborough County Sherriff’s Department, who is assigned to the Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce (ICAC) in New Hampshire.

Because children are not aware of social media’s overall potential for danger, parents need to be especially vigilant. They want to enjoy the ability to communicate locally and globally but aren’t aware of the inherent risks. What can happen is that a child will supply too much personal information and start to meet the demands of an online predator, who demands more and more information.

“Kids are still developing, and they are asking lots of questions about life and sex, and they are going to the internet and applications to ask random people information,” Fleming said. “I encourage parents to have conversations with their kids — you have to in a digital age. Sexual assault now can take place thousands of miles away.”

Another issue that teens may not understand is how their ages dictate what they can legally say or share in online communications. For example, a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old  are allowed to date, as the age of consent is 16 in New Hampshire. However, you are not allowed to talk about sexually explicit topics or share sexually explicit photos legally until both parties are 18.  If you do, the 18-year-old could be charged with a Class B felony and be required to register as a sex offender, Fleming said.

“We know parents struggle, but it is important to take the time to learn how an app works. There are tons of resources, including our task force, where we do presentations all over the state at the request of communities, he said.

The federally funded Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce provides resources to parents and schools and plans to use additional state funding set aside by Gov. Chris Sununu to add and train officers and provide forensic examiners with the right equipment, said John Peracchi, commander of ICAC and a detective/sergeant with the Portsmouth Police Department.

In May, Operation Cyberguardian yielded 12 arrests in a three-day period, thanks to undercover officers who followed individuals meeting up with minors they met online. The undercover operation was conducted by ICAC, as well as the U.S. Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, police from Nashua, Lebanon and Portsmouth; and the sheriff’s departments in Strafford, Cheshire and Grafton counties.

Social media victimization is not uncommon. If a parent suspects that their child may be a victim, they should start out by contacting their local police department. ICAC works closely with local departments around the state and has 100 affiliates, Peracchi said.

“As far as evidence goes, they [parents] should not delete, manipulate, or forward to anyone else any of the evidence. Keep it in its original form,” he said.

Social media is here to stay, as more than nine in 10 American teens say they have access to a smartphone or social media, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center Survey. The key to facilitating safe social media use is awareness, education, and keeping the lines of communication with your teen open.

“Encourage conversations and don’t be afraid to engage with them [your teen] to the level that they want you to be engaged. If they are okay with you being one of their followers, do it,” Bowden said. “You can also be that ‘extra eye’ by being friends [on social media] with their friends and inform their parents if needed. We are in this together. If you see something, say something.”

Get to know your teen’s favorite social media apps

Texting apps

Kik Messenger allows your child age 13 or older to text for free with no character limits or ads. Why it poses a danger:

  • It does not show up in you’re a cell phone messaging service, so you won’t know what or when your child is texting to others.
  • Strangers can message your child if they know your child’s Kik username.
  • It features “promoted chats” in which your child can chat with a brand and be subliminally marketed to.

WhatsApp is another messaging service; this one is for teens 16 and older only. You can send text, audio
and video messages to as many people as you want with no size limit or feeds.
Why it poses a danger:

  • Many people younger than 16 sign up anyway.
  • Although it offers “end to end encryption” between users who send messages to one another, claiming that even the software developer can’t read or store messages, this could give teens a false sense of security when sharing — as anyone can screenshot a conversation and share it later.

Photo/ Video-sharing apps

Tik Tok is for teens older than 16 who want to be the next breakout rock star. This app allows them to record and share videos of their performances. Why it poses a danger:

  • Songs and videos include bad language and other types of content you might not want your young teen exposed to — as anyone can post videos in this app.
  • Users can comment on videos, which can result in hurt feelings, inappropriate or sexually suggestive comments. Again, adults can participate in these conversations, too.

Houseparty enables group video chatting through mobile and desktop apps for teens 13 and older. Users receive a notification when friends are online and available to group video chat. Why it poses a danger:

  • Again, while you may think the harmless, goofy video you are sharing with up to eight people stays between you, anyone can screenshot a moment that your teen might regret later.
  • Teens might get involved in video chats with people they don’t know well, exposing them to inappropriate content that can’t be “stopped” by a moderator.

‘Secret’ apps

Snapchat became popular quickly, thanks to its promise that videos shared would “disappear” over time. It is free and available to anyone over the age of 13, including adults. Why it poses a danger:

  • Embarrassing or inappropriate photos never go away if a friend screenshots them to share with others.
  • Snapchat does keep data on “snaps” sent and received, so there is a way to recover sexy images or other photos that shouldn’t be shared.
  • “Snapchat is a camera where it matters more how you feel than how you look,” according to its website. With many filters and the ability to copy and paste images into carefully curated photos, your teen may receive images that don’t accurately reflect reality and feel pressure to curate his or her own “better” reality.

Whisper is positioned to get teens 17 and older to expose their innermost secrets, claiming anonymity to the user. There is no way for Whisper to verify the age of any user.Why it poses a danger:

  • Teens don’t even need an email to sign up. And they don’t need to input their names. However, if the location identification is left on, predators can easily tell where a teen is located.
  • Teens may reveal secrets that they regret. And they may be exposed to “confessions” with sexual or inappropriate content that they feel pressured to “share.” One example of a shareable meme posted on the Whisper website: “When I start talking to a girl, I test her and see how long it takes her to send me a naked picture. If it’s within a week she fails and isn’t for me.”
  • A review of the app in the Apple Store by a teen reports that she often gets asked to share nude pictures.

— Information courtesy of Common Sense Media

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks has worked as a journalist and in marketing roles throughout the Granite State. She now regularly writes for New-England based higher education, business and technology organizations.

Categories: Technology and Social Media, Teens