Raleigh, N.C. — Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, Vine, Pinterest and FaceTime – those are just a few of the online platforms children are using to stay connected to friends. With each new social media connection, experts say it’s crucial for parents to be vigilant about monitoring their children’s online activity.
Tammy Finch works as a psychologist at Cary Academy and teaches parents how to navigate the digital age. She says parents need to be the guardrails on the superhighway of online information.
“You've got to let your kid ping around a little bit in between the guardrails so that they can learn from their mistakes,” she said.
Kalyse Connor, 12, learned from her mistake after she began collecting random followers online who shared her love of the movie, “The Hunger Games.” Her mother, Angela Connor, intervened and asked if she knew any of the people she was communicating with on Instagram.
“I didn’t know any of them, and I realized how bad that was,” Kalyse said.
“So, we went through and deleted all of the people, but I made her understand why,” Angela Connor said. “You don't even know if this is a girl. You don't know if it is a teen.”
This mother-daughter interaction is exactly how experts say parents should handle their children's foray into the digital world, especially as young people are embracing technology.
Angela Connor manages social media for a communications company in Raleigh and is well-versed in her two daughters’ online lives. She and her husband, Derek Connor, do not allow their girls to go on any social network without their permission.
“I think we have to be involved as parents. It's not OK to say, ‘Oh, I don't know. We didn't do that when I was kid,’” Angela Connor said. “It's really important for parents to understand that they have to do this. This is part of raising children now.”
“These things stick with you forever. We don't know what college applications are going to be like in six years. Are they going to Google you? Are they going to go back and look at your Facebook page and see the things you posted?” Derek Connor added.
The Connors’ youngest daughter, 7-year-old Kaiya, is just starting to interact online, especially on Animal Jam – a National Geographic website for children – but she knows the rules: “If you talk rude, someone can report you, and I think when they report you, you won't be able to play again.”
“Your child could be out there being victimized. They could be a victim of cyber-bullying. They could be the cyber-bully,” Angela Connor said.
Kalyse says she has made fewer mistakes, thanks to her mother's guidance, and has learned some important ground rules: “Don't talk to anybody you don't know. Don't post pictures of people without their permission.”
From threats to sexual references, social media is ripe with opportunities for children to make big mistakes. Last April, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper and a Facebook representative hosted a town hall meeting for parents about the dangers of social media. Cooper offered this Internet safety checklist for parents:
- How much time is your child spending online? Does it seem like it's too much?
- Has your child received phone calls from any strange people?
- Has your child received unusual mail or gifts?
- Has your child tried to hide online activity?
- Is your child experiencing any sudden or substantial changes in behavior?
Finch says parents she talks with worry most about whether their children are posting things online that might hurt others or damage their own reputations. When children make a bad choice online, it can be public and permanent.
“Educate yourself. Educate your child. Stay on top of it. Enforce consequences. Have a lot of dialogue about it,” she said. “You only gradually allow them more independence and freedom as they demonstrate they're capable of using it responsibly.”
The Connors say their daughters are gaining their trust when it comes to using the computer, phones and other devices, but the girls know that nothing is kept secret from mom and dad.
“The rule is that I can come look at what you're doing at any given time, that there's really no privacy. You have no privacy in this house,” Angela Connor said.
For Kalyse, being connected online is a big deal for middle school students her age. “Yeah, it’s huge!” she said, especially having her own phone. “It's so important. I text my friends on it. I go on Instagram. I text my mom and dad with it.”
In a recent parent seminar, Finch warned parents that keeping technology away from their children isn’t the answer, and fear-based education doesn’t work. Those who deny their children access to the Internet and social media are setting themselves up for a power struggle, “and you’re not going to win,” she said.
“Technology is going to play a huge part in your child's life, if it doesn't already,” Finch said. “The problem is children's brains aren't ready for this powerful new tool. So that means we have to function as that part of the brain that they don't have … I allow a lot of independence, until you cross that line into doing something that's unsafe or dangerous, and then I'm all over you.”