Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Social Media: How Much Do You REALLY Know?

Social Media:
How Much Do You REALLY Know?
by Mikey Keating Smith, M.Ed
Many parents are familiar with Facebook, the ubiquitous social networking site, and some also know about twitter (although they might not understand exactly how it works). Unfortunately, when it comes to social networking, Facebook and twitter are just the tip of the iceberg. Tumblr, Instagram, Keek, Vine, . . Social networking sites are exploding, and while there are many wonderful uses for each one of them, there are also many pitfalls and opportunities for kids to become targets. How can we keep our kids safe on websites we don't even know exist?

*Leigh Stewart thought she had covered all her bases when it came to keeping her 11-year-old son safe online. Her son's emails were forwarded to her cell phone, and she knew he had several social networking accounts, including one with What she didn't know, however, is that, a seemingly harmless website where users can post questions and answers, has no privacy settings. That means that anyone, anywhere, is free to comment on anyone else's account, with no filter. Anonymously. The site, which has more than 40 million users, has come under fire in England recently, where it has been blamed for the suicides of several students who were reportedly bullied mercilessly thanks to's anonymity.

Because emails users when posts are made to the account, Stewart was able to see responses to her son's questions. She was shocked to see the responses grow more and more inappropriate, and worse, obscene. Her son was hurt and humiliated by the anonymous bullying. "I went in my son's room and he was crying under the covers so I wouldn't hear him," she says. "He was embarrassed but he showed me all the other comments that he never replied to - thank goodness he was smart enough to not reply."

The bullying was bad enough, but the fact that there was almost no recourse is even worse. First off, is a Latvian-based site, so there is no real customer service or support available in the U.S. This also means that the police cannot do anything either, no matter how obscene or inappropriate the posts might be. Even more frustrating is the fact that schools don't always have clear policies on how to handle bullying on social media sites, especially lesser-known ones such as Stewart's son had a suspicion that several classmates were responsible for the posts, but they denied involvement and again, the anonymous nature of made it impossible to prove their guilt (or innocence).

So what's a parent to do in this exponentially expanding digital age? We want our kids to be tech savvy, sure, but we also need them to be tech SMART. To accomplish this goal, parents need to take an active role in their kids' online lives. Here's how:

1. Be Knowledgeable.
Stay informed regarding popular websites, apps, and social media sites. There are several websites aimed specifically at educating parents about social media sites, including and

2.  Be Wary.

Just because your child wants an account on the big new social media site doesnot mean that you need to agree to allow it. Vine, an app owned by twitter that lets users post super-short video clips became the most used video-sharing app AND the most downloaded free app for Iphone early in 2013. Pornographic  videos started popping up within a week of Vine's launch, outraging many. While apple changed the status of Vine to age restricted (meaning that you are supposed to be 17 to download) there's no solid security in place to make sure ANYONE can't download the app, regardless of his or her age.

 3. Be Vocal.

As with many other issues, communicating with your kids about the many benefits and drawbacks of various social media sites is key. Children often do not realize the indelibility of the internet, or how thoughtless or tasteless posts or pictures now might affect their futures. There are plenty of stories about students who have been affected by social media sites. Use one of these stories as a springboard to get your kids talking.

4. Be Involved.

Experts disagree on whether or not you should friend your child on Facebook or follow on twitter, but allowing him or her free reign is probably not the smartest idea either. Talk to your child about what your expectations are with regard to social media, and have a plan for monitoring usage of such sites. Google your child's name from time to time as well.

Technology is changing at lightning speed, and with it how we communicate and interact with the world around us. The more kids and parents know about the technology available, the better equipped we will ALL be to use it responsibly.

*All names changed to protect the privacy of students & their families.

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