Acquiring a mobile phone is practically a rite of passage for many millennium middle schoolers. Parents like the convenience of tracking their kids and kids love the unfettered access to friends –– and therein lies the rub. How do we stay ahead of our kids' social media use, encourage healthy interaction and guide them to make choices that protect their reputations?
"Right off the bat from our children's perspective, many parents have a credibility issue on this topic because social networking does not come as naturally for parents as it does for our kids," says Dr. Joni Johnson, Pediatric Partners for Attention and Learning. "A parent's approach to discussing social media with their children needs to be both practical and dictatorial."
Currently flying under the fingertips of network savvy adolescents are two popular social media apps, Snapchat and Kik, which are available for free download on phones with Internet access.
What is Snapchat?
Snapchat is a photo-sharing app. The photo vanishes from the friend's screen after one to ten seconds depending on the amount of time the sender sets. The app is for users 13 years and older. Recently, Snapchat released SnapKidz for the 13 and under crowd, which has the camera features without the sharing options.
The worry. While most kids use the app to clown around, some assume that its temporary nature makes it safe for sharing explicit or embarrassing photos. But, with a simple swipe across the screen or the push of a button, the recipient of the message can capture and save the photo. Although Snapchat notifies the sender if it detects that the recipient took a screen shot, once the photo is sent she can do little to control its circulation.
What is Kik?
Kik is a messenger app that replaces a traditional paid texting plan. Kik users can chat with each other one-on-one or in a group through text and photos. Only people who know your user name can send messages.
The worry. Kik offers no parental controls and leaves it to the user to set privacy settings and block unknown individuals. Your child exposes herself to unwanted attention from child predators, Internet trolls and cyberbullies if she posts her username anywhere on a public social network like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
According to a 2011 study conducted by ORC International for the National Consumers League, nearly 60 percent of tweens, kids between the ages of 8 and 12, own a cell phone.
What's the attraction? "The fascination is the newness of the application that brings instant gratification," says Dr. Judy Jacobs, Christian Family Counseling.
Some teens lean too heavily on virtual social circles especially if they feel excluded or rejected in school. Oxford University researchers warn that overdosing on social media can lead to personality and brain disorders and mimic symptoms of alcohol and drug addiction.
Lessen the time your adolescent spends on social media by encouraging involvement in activities like scouting, Boys & Girls Club, church organizations, sports associations, or the visual and performing arts.
Parental safeguards. Help your child set appropriate privacy settings. For a fee, apps like Mymobilewatchdog.com enable parents to track their child's mobile phone use. Some parents connect their child's phone to their iTunes account so they can follow the apps their child downloads and discuss anything that's questionable. Others join social media networks alongside their kids to monitor their activity.
Talk with your kids. Navigate social media risks and dangers through active participation and collaborative communication between you and your child.
"Parents should provide examples of what information and which pictures are appropriate and inappropriate to post," Johnson says. "Talk about ways to be smart using this new technology and have your kids help you design safeguards."
Create a Family Digital Use contract. An agreement from the beginning clearly outlines your expectations of your child's mobile phone use. Include limits on when your child can use his phone and consequences for pushing those limits.
"Set rules not to talk to virtual people when real people are in front of you," Jacobs says.
Also, lead by example. No driving and texting and no talking on the phone or texting during mealtime.
Christa Melnyk Hines is a freelance journalist who specializes in family communication issues. Connect with her at www.christamelnykhines.com.