Hollie McAfee’s daughter Ellen was 12 when she first asked her parents about opening a Facebook account. Ultimately, they decided to wait a few years, but the conversation was the first of many Hollie found herself having with Ellen, now 18, and later with her son, Kevin, 15.
Recently, Ellen, who lives at home after graduating from Hodgdon High School last year, told her mom about her Snapchat account. She already knew Kevin and Ellen were active on Facebook and Twitter. Mom isn’t worried, though.
“Right now, I don’t pay as much attention to my daughter’s [online activity]. She really understands the boundaries. … I think the big thing is if your kids know you can see what they’re posting they’re going to be more careful about it,” McAfee, who lives in Hodgdon, said.
For parents such as McAfee, navigating the line between wanting to keep children safe in the world of social media and allowing them to interact online can be complicated.
“We’re part of the first generation of parents who have to do with this,” she said.
In recent weeks, it has become more and more apparent that parents need to play an active role in teaching their kids to be responsible digital citizens, in light of the controversy around the John Bapst Memorial High School teacher and the recent trial stemming from the murder of a 15-year-old who was manipulated by someone using a fake Facebook account.
Amy Lupold Bair, author of “Raising Digital Families For Dummies,” likens it to wearing a seat belt. You might not buckle up in anticipation of having a car accident, but you do so as a preventative measure. Likewise, teaching kids to be safe online is a preventative measure.
“We all think it’s not going to be us. … I think it’s the same thing with social media and safety. I think it’s tough to make them feel like it could happen to them,” Bair said. “[But] you still have to be safe.”
So where do you start?
“First and foremost, they should have a very honest conversation with their kids when they hand over that phone,” Bair said.
She suggests creating a digital contract with kids that sets ground rules for how the mobile device can be used and for what. Also, it should have the checks and balances you plan to use in monitoring their online activity. “[Say] ‘This is how I am going to monitor this, and these are the consequences,’” Bair said.
In addition to eliminating any ambiguity, Bair said it’s important for kids to understand the concept of the digital footprint they are leaving behind.
“Parents need to have a conversation with their kids about a digital footprint. Things like Snapchat, we’ve all seen, is forever. … It takes half a second for people to snap a screenshot with their phone, and then they have it for forever,” Bair said.
Those snapshots then can be used anywhere, including being reshared on other social media sites without the original poster’s consent.
“Anything that you send out digitally can exist out there in the Internet forever,” Bair said.
Experts also suggest parents should monitor or restrict their children’s access on phones.
Megan Ingenbrandt, a digital marketing and social media specialist with eZanga.com, said parents must be more proactive in understanding the social media experience of their children.
“Too many parents take a passive approach to social media. They fail to stay up to date on the latest ‘anonymity’ app trends, and they fail to monitor what their teens are doing online. The easiest way to do this is to ask what they’re using. Then, take the time to download the app and learn its inner workings for themselves,” Ingenbrandt said.
Bair suggests researching monitoring apps that can do anything from log keystrokes and email it to parents daily to controlling the sites and apps accessed by the phone and for how long. Cellphone providers also offer controls parents can use, too.
“I recommend that parents take a look at what all the options are and discuss it with each other. And I recommend letting the child know … so it’s not a ‘gotcha’ moment,” Bair said. “I think parents need to be careful not to set up a situation where their child doesn’t feel trusted.”
At the McAfee home, the family computer has parental controls on it, something McAfee said has less to do with social media and more to do with the search function.
“When it comes to 15-year-old boys, you have to keep track of what they’re looking at,” she said.
And that’s something for parents to remember as well. In the social media world, tweens and teens are interacting on an adult playing field, though they aren’t fully mentally developed.
“We are handing over a lot of power to teens and tweens, whose brains are still developing,” Bair said.
An inside look
For the McAfees, the introduction to social media came with a lot of parent supervision. They initially required their children to share passwords and access to sites. But as they showed more responsibility, the teens were given more leeway. However, discussions about the proper use of social media haven’t stopped.
“On Twitter you can get a whole different view of a kid that you think you might know, there’s a lot of profanity, sexual stuff. They’re trying to get attention … but it can be dangerous because it’s so public,” McAfee said.
Bair said the most important thing is to keep those lines of communication open.
“Just keep talking to your kids — even if that means texting with your kids — just keep those doors to conversation open so that kids know that when they need to come to you with something they can,” Bair said.
The McAfee family will soon have to face the social media issue once more when their 4-year-old son, DJ, starts showing interest in creating social media accounts. He already knows how to search for YouTube videos to watch on his mother’s iPad.
Overall, Hollie McAfee is glad she and her husband have always been open with their children about social media.
“I’m glad we allowed them to use social media. It’s such a big part of their lives. But it’s important to teach them how to use it in a healthy way,” she said. “It’s just important to keep the conversation going, even if it’s hard.”