Have you had The Talk with your kids yet? Not the one about sex, although that’s important too. Rather, have you had The Talk about social media? If you haven’t, you should — soon.
Social media sites continue to explode. While you’re still figuring out how to use Facebook, your children are light years ahead of you. They’re moving on from Facebook — in part because that’s where you are — to online applications such as Snapchat, Instagram, Kik Messenger, and others that you’ve never heard of.
They’re doing it to get away from you. To have time alone with their friends. To be independent. It’s the digital equivalent of hanging out with friends at the mall. It’s part of growing up.
Some of these sites offer — with disclaimers — the illusion of privacy and anonymity. But it’s only an illusion. Nearly every site collects personal information. None is immune to hackers.
It is in the nature of young people to take risks. They crave to discover, and push, the boundaries of their world. That leads to mistakes. And mistakes made on social media via a smart phone or other device can echo around the world and never disappear.
Recent events in New Jersey are instructive. Some high school girls there thought it would be a hoot to send naughty pictures of themselves to at least one male friend. Snapchat said photos self-destruct in fewer than 10 seconds, so perhaps they thought: What’s the harm?
Except that was plenty of time for their teenage friend to take screen shots of the images before they disappeared. He posted them to his Instagram account.
No one knows how many people may have the images now. They have been warned to delete the photos, or they could be prosecuted for possessing or distributing child pornography.
That incident made the news, but similar events occur somewhere in America nearly every day. What’s a parent to do?
The Pew Research Center says 78 percent of teenagers have a cell phone. Nearly half are smart phones. Millions of teens have an iPod Touch, Kindle Fire, iPad, or similar mobile device. Taking them all away is not an option.
Quib.ly offers parents a place to talk to each other about how to keep their kids safe in the age of smart phones. The site mediatechparenting.net offers topics that help parents help their children learn to be savvy Internet users.
But the most important advice appears to be: Talk to your children, the earlier the better. Some experts even recommend giving smart phones to children before they’re teenagers, when there’s a chance that they might listen.
Be clear about rules and consequences. Set conditions, such as “friending” you on all their accounts. Check their devices to keep track of what applications they’ve downloaded, and other online activity they have pursued.
Doing these things won’t prevent your teenager from doing something with a smart phone that he or she will regret. But they could help. And that’s often the best that parents can hope for.